What the Tech? Are Your Children Hiding Something from You on Their Smartphone?

It’s fairly safe to say that parenting and protecting children has never been more difficult than it is in 2022. For parents who allow their young children to have smartphones, it’s even more difficult.

Armed with a smartphone children have access to billions of websites, millions of apps, and access to images online and sent from other people.

They have the ability to have private chats and video meetings with friends and strangers they meet online. Unless a parent is standing over their shoulders every minute of the day, there are only a few ways to protect children from seeing inappropriate content.

Apple and Google have parental monitoring tools built into their operating systems that can protect children to some extent but if anyone wants to hide their tracks online, they can figure it out. They also have access to other tips and tricks from their friends. Here are a few ways kids can keep their smartphone activity from their parents and guardians.

Parents should take a look at their smartphones from time to time, looking for suspicious apps that are not approved for use. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of messaging and chat apps parents may never have heard about. The apps Omegle and Kik are often mentioned by police and school counselors as those that are used for private chats and the exchange of inappropriate images and videos. Kik is often mentioned as being dangerous to young children as they can meet strangers anywhere online and move the conversations to Kik which is more secure for privacy.

Other messaging apps such as WeChat, WhatsApp and Snapchat allow for encrypted messages that disappear after a certain amount of time or after it has been received and read.

Messaging apps aren’t the only worry for parents. Any app with a social aspect can be used to send and receive messages and content. Discord, Twitch, other gaming apps, even coloring book apps have been found to be used by people to send messages and even video chats.

Parents can look at their child’s smartphone to see which apps are installed but it’s very easy for anyone to hide apps from the home screens. Apple’s iOS 15 made hiding apps as simple as a few taps on the screen. For iPhones, parents should swipe left past all of the home screens where they’ll find a list of all installed apps.

On Android devices it can be a little more difficult as different brands have their own shortcuts, but by opening “settings” on an Android device and choosing “apps” you should be able to see a list of all apps installed on the device.

Hiding images, text messages and contacts is easy for anyone using a smartphone. Hidden locker apps in both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store allow the user to store any photo, video, note, etc in a hidden folder that’s accessible only by entering a secret code.

These hidden locker apps are often disguised as calculator or music player icons. To open the hidden locker, you must enter a secret equation or code. Some of these go a step further allowing the user to set up a dummy hidden locker accessible by another secret code.

If mom or dad asks to see inside the locker, the child can give them the secondary secret code. When that
locker or vault is opened it may not show anything while the other secret locker holds all of the images and content they don’t want parents to find.

I’ve found that among children, messaging apps tend to run through schools. If some kids are using one app, all of the other kids will use it too until someone finds out about it. Then they move to another messaging app, keeping parents and school administrators playing catch up.

There are a few products on the market aimed at helping parents monitor their kids smartphone use. Circle, by Disney, allows parents to set time limits on web and app use. Parents can also see which apps are being used, when, and for how long. Circle connects to the home WiFi router that gives parents access to any device on the network. A paid subscription also gives parents a view of their kids’ smartphone use when they’re off the home WiFi network.

The best parenting advice I could give to anyone raising kids in the smartphone age is to talk with the child about what you expect and about the dangers of chatting with people they do not know.

This organization encourages parents to wait until their child is in the 8th grade before giving them a smartphone of their own. www.waituntil8th.org

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