Giving your teen their own smart phone is a privilege and responsibility. It will include setting some limits on acceptable uses for the phone and any other devices that connect to the internet or wifi. Once again the speed of technological advances (driven by the availability of teen’s disposable income to buy relatively inexpensive apps for their phone) has complicated your job as a parents by making is possible for your kid to hide apps, information and images on their devices. This takes the form of using the programming of their smart phone to hide apps from view and downloading apps on their phone that serve as secure, hidden data storage vaults.
There are several techniques for hiding apps from plain sight on the screen of a smart phone. Apps are still on the phone and accessible, they just aren’t visible. Folks who know something about how to do this have provided helpful guides for hiding apps on Apple iOS devices, for iOS 8 or on Android devices. When you go looking for information on hiding apps on the phone you will find that it changes for each upgrade of your operating program. (Is it any wonder that parents get confused and overwhelmed when they TRY to stay on top of these things!)
Applications have also been created that store personal, potentially embarrassing photos and video clips in a secured location on the phone. These vault apps are password protected and some of them are designed to look like something else, for example, a calculator or the audio control for the phone. Then, there are apps that have been developed to hide things (usually sexually explicit things) from your spouse or dating partner like those reviewed here and here. All of these are ideal for trying to hide things on your phone from your parents, too.
Self Destruct Apps
Then there are apps that allow the recipient to view the message or image and then it disappears. The most venerable of these is Snapchat. It sends a photo that (allegedly) disappears from 1-10 seconds after it is viewed. Other versions include apps like Wickr and Confide. You can expect that new versions of this kind of app will continue to show up in the marketplace.
Finally, your teen can communicate visually through the use of the ubiquitous built in cameras on all communication technology. For Apple products, chatting face-to-face can be done using the Facetime feature. Programs like Skype and Oovoo allow participants to relate to each other visually through the cameras on their computers. They can do this without any record of the “conversation” (unless, of course, one of them records it).
What’s a parent to do?
Set up ground rules. Always start with a discussion about appropriate and inappropriate use of technology followed up by setting clear and specific rules (and consequences). You can find some suggestions for how to do this in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century. (You can also look through some of my blog posts on sexting, texting, social media, cell phones, apps and citizenship.)
Complete transparency. You should be informed about every app on their devices. You should have the password to every account and application your child uses. No password (or you find they have tried to hide them from you); no longer get access to the devices or the internet until they prove they are trustworthy. Some suggestions about addressing technology transgressions can be found in my book (and by looking through some of my blogs on sexting, texting, social media, cell phones, apps and citizenship).
Monitor, monitor, monitor. Finally, you should be regularly checking up on your child’s use of technology. Helpfully, many data plans have ways to link phones so that you either have to approve of any changes to the phone (like adding apps) or actually require your permission through parental controls. And, when you want to use technology to monitor your teen’s use of technology, there’s an app for that. For example, Teensafe www.teensafe.com is an app you place on your child’s phone that allows you to monitor not only the apps on their phone but also their texts and images sent to and downloaded onto their phone. (They also have an excellent post on hidden apps.) There are apps you can place on your child’s phone that will send texts, photos and location information to you. Here is a review of some of several parental control apps.
Educate yourself. Make sure you check every now and then to see what new and exciting technologies have been developed to aid your child in thwarting your best efforts to raise them in a healthy and non-sexually explicit environment.
The bottom line is you can’t expect your teen to police themselves in their mobile phone use. Apps that let them hide what they are doing are just a modern form of sneaking out the window while you are asleep. The question is whether you can discourage them from sneaking out or will have to end up nailing the window shut. (Keep a hammer and nails close at hand.)