Parents Beware of “Secret Apps” on Kids Phones

A relatively new smartphone app proves how easy it is for kids to be sneaky with their phones, and what parents need to pay attention to.

The Calculator + app is available for iPhones, Android phones, and tablets. It looks almost identical to the calculator you would find standard on these devices, and it even functions as a calculator.

A user must type in the apps correct passcode to access the apps secret function, which is to hide pictures and videos.

Educators in Western New York have heard about apps like this from students.

“When we want to know about new apps or things that are out there on the Internet, we ask the kids, because kids are far more knowledgeable on the Internet. That gap between us and them is pretty palpable. They know so much more about technology, and that’s one of the difficulties even as a parent,” explains Williamsville South High School principal Keith Boardman.

Timothy Sember has four children between 29 and 16 years old, so he has had to adjust to the changing technology with each of his kids.

Sember is concerned about the function of an app like this, because there seems to be no “good” use for it.

He says giving teenagers the ability to hide pictures and videos on their phones could also give them a false sense of security that no one else will ever see them.

“Think about being a teenager, if there’s a way to have a secret from people and have contact and communication and all the rest of it without people knowing about it, it’s right there at their fingertips where they can literally kind of fool everyone, except the reality is, it’s out there. Eventually, somebody’s going to see it, and whatever is out there, never goes away,” said Sember.

Sember heard about the secret calculator app several months ago and discussed it with his daughter. Marni Conte also has a child in high school, but had never heard about this app.

“My reaction is one of shock because I think that it is a very dangerous app. Kids don’t realize what the ramifications of their actions that they think are only going to be a 30-second clip, something that’s going to disappear, what can actually be a ramification of that move,” Conte said about her fears with apps like this.

What to look for

There are several ways you can tell the difference between the secret calculator, and the standard calculator tool on your child’s phone.

The Calculator + app has a small + sign right next to the title, underneath the icon. There are versions of the app that don’t include this sign, but you can also pay attention to which apps your child has on his or her phone, and read the description.

The App Store clearly describes the purpose of Calculator + as a way to “hide photos and videos so that no one else can see them but you.”

Although most parents agree that vigilance is important, kids have a distinct advantage because they are immersed in the technology every day.

That’s why experts in the computer science field think they will always be not one but 10 steps ahead.

Geoffrey Challen is an Associate Professor in the Science Engineering Department at University at Buffalo. He points out, for example, that the description in the App Store can say whatever the developer wants it to say.

“I don’t have to tell you that the app has secret features. They probably did that just so people would find out [about Calculator +], but in the future, the way a student might find out about this is a friend might say, ‘Hey, check out this app, it has this secret feature I found out about,’” explained Challen.

He calls this an arms race that parents are unlikely to win by trying to use the same tools as their children.

“I think we can throw more and more logging and tracking at it, but if you go back, this is not new. People have had software that they can run on their computer to track what people are browsing, and you know people found a way around that.”

Timothy Sember and Marni Conte agree that there are plenty of positive things their children can do with their phones and computers, whether it be keeping in touch with friends, or staying on top of homework assignments.

They say communication and building trust will always be more effective than simply tracking what their children are doing.

Sember also says it’s important to help teenagers grow, by treating them like young adults. “You have to help protect themselves from themselves, but in a way that’s respectful to who they are, and helping them understand, why wouldn’t you want to be doing that?”

“Kids are going to do what they’re going to do. As adults, we have to set the example by our own actions. We have to make sure that we’re developing an open line of communication so that there’s a trust built in,” emphasized Conte.

It’s a conversation any parent can expect to have as developers find new ways to make kids hit the download button on their devices.

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