The Secret Apps that Parents Need to Know About

Daughter looking a phone and ignoring her motherWe covered teen sexting after the Cañon City, Colorado case. One of the questions asked during that case was how hundreds of students could have hidden nude photos on their phones with no parent finding a single one for so long. The answer is photo vaults, which are also known as ghost apps.

Photo Vaults/Ghost Apps

These apps are available in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and there are hundreds to choose from. To a parent looking at their child’s phone, these apps often appear to be calculators, a tic tac toe game, or some other innocent app. Launch the app, and it is an actual working calculator or game. However, entering a secret pass code reveals a hidden photo album within the app. Photos in the album do not appear in other photo albums or galleries on the phone. Many of these ghost apps are used to hide photo albums, but others allow users to filter text messages or hide phone calls. Some offer a decoy password that reveals an innocent hidden photo album.

Anonymous Message Board Apps

On college campuses across the country, Yik Yak is a popular social media app that allows students to anonymously post comments that can be seen by those within a 1.5-mile radius. The creators of Yik Yak use geofencing, a technology that prevents the app from loading when the GPS location is within certain defined boundaries, to prevent its use on high school and middle school campuses. Geofencing does not prevent students from using the app off of their school campus.

The After School app has appeared to fill in that gap and is now on more than 22,300 high school campuses with between 2 and 10 million users according to the developers. Like Yik Yak, After School allows students to post anonymous comments to a message board for their high school. Users of the app are restricted to high school students by requiring them to verify that they attend a high school through their Facebook page. An additional algorithm works to block adults posing as high school students from accessing the app.

The potential for cyberbullying with After School is significant, and the developers relaunched the app earlier this year with additional safeguards that attempt to block bullying, threats of self-harm or harm to others, and hateful speech. The app now allows parents to set passwords and restrict content. Even with these new safeguards in place, inappropriate messages are still getting through.

What Parents Can Do

While many of these apps seem to be designed to prevent parental oversight, experts say there are several things that parents can do.

  • Have the Smart Talk with your child to set up appropriate agreed-upon limits on smartphone use.
  • Set up parental controls on your child’s Apple App Store or Google Play These controls allow you to limit your child’s ability to install apps without your permission.
  • When your child asks to install an app, discuss with them what the app is, check it out yourself, and ask about how they intend to use the app.

Common Sense Media has a collection of privacy and internet safety questions to help you with these issues as well.