News recently broke out of a sexting scandal involving hundreds of teens at a Colorado high school in which illicit photos of children were circulated. Parents and administrators were shocked at the magnitude of students implicated and have been left scratching their heads as to how this could have possibly happened without anyone noticing.
The hard truth at the center of the scandal is that nowadays with smartphones this kind of incident is only too easy to orchestrate. Officials investigating found that the photo-sharing, which took place in school, was done largely on cellphone applications called, "vault apps."
Vault apps have been around since Snapchat's popularity rise in 2012. They're popular because as their name implies, the provide users an easy to way to store media files in a vault. What makes them dangerous for teenagers is that they also provide a suite of privacy tools intended to hide the media files in innocuous looking apps.
Sexting may seem harmless to your teenager, but its consequences are very real and can be far-reaching. Laws regarding sexting vary widely from state to state, but no matter where you live, possession of illicit photos of minors is illegal—even if theperson who has them is a minor too or took them—and can be prosecuted.
But it's not just the ability to hide illicit photos that make vault apps dangerous for your teenager—they can also facilitate the concealment a host of other dangerous stunts like recordings of illegal activities such as drug use, vandalism or trespassing.
One thing is clear, as parents we have to ensure that our children are safe and the first step in protecting them is learning about dangerous apps like vault apps and restricting access to them.
So how can you take this crucial step?
First step: spotting a vault app or ghost app
There are hundreds of these kinds of apps on the Apple App Store and Android Play store and most of them if not all seem to be something else entirely like a clock, calculator or a game. Many of them are even free.
One of the most common vault apps is an app that is a working calculator. Using the number keypad on the calculator, users can enter a passcode and access a secret cache of photos, notes, or browse the web in secret.
Another app looks like a clock, which grants access to the vault when users hold two fingers to the clock face for three seconds and then enter a passcode.
Many of these apps give themselves away in their names, so going through a list of recent uploads in the App or Play store can help you weed out some of these apps.
Second step: talking to your child
Parenting in the digital world is hard and the only thing that can make it easier is by creating and fostering an environment of open communication. Talk to your child about sharing or storing media that could have larger consequences both legally and socially. Having a conversation can not only encourage your children to be open and honest with you, but also establish a precedent for other more difficult conversations down the line.
However, if you suspect your child is not being forthcoming, it might be time to check their phones.
Step three: taking control of our kid's smartphone
Even though this might not make you very popular among your teenagers Apple does provide parents with parental controls that allow you to lock down your child's phone and approve every app they want to install from now until their 18. Android also provides some parental controls, but they're not as restricting as Apple. Here's how to do it:
For Apple households that use iOS8 or later, use the Family Sharing option (for instructions on how to set up Family Sharing, visit Apple's support site). Once you've set up Family Sharing tap the Settings icon on your iPhone and select iCloud. Tap Family, then Add Family Member (each iFamily can have up to five members). You'll be prompted to enter your child's Apple ID email address to send them an invitation. Once your child accepts the invitation they're in the iFamily.
If your child doesn't have an Apple ID yet, you can tap "Create an Apple ID for a child," and follow the prompts to set that up. Remember, you will need a credit card on file with iTunes—not a debit card—or it won't work.
If your child is under 18, the "Ask To Buy" toggle will be turned on (you can turn this off at any time). Now every time your child attempts to download an app they will get a message that reads:
With the option to “Cancel” or “Ask”.
If they tap Ask you will be notified and asked decline or approve the purchase.
For families with Android phones, you can limit the types of apps, movies, books, and other media your kids access based on their maturity ratings. Android phones also allow you to require users to authenticate every purchase on a device with a password, but neither of these controls will allow you to stop your teen from downloading a free photo vault.
For the most control of your child's phone, create an admin account and then create your child's account as a restricted user, which will prevent them from using the Play store at all. Do this by setting up a PIN or password to protect the admin account. From within the admin account, select the Settings icon, and then select Users. Tap on "Add users or profile" and then select Restricted Profile.
From the same Settings menu you can select which of the apps you've already downloaded you child can access by moving the toggles to the right. If you child tries to launch Google Play Store, they'll receive a message telling them they don't have permission to use the store. This also means that if there is an app you want to let them download; you'll have to do it yourself from the admin account and then turn on their access to it.
Taking measures to protect you children is a critical part of parenting and although these parental controls are not foolproof they can help to give you peace of mind as your child navigates the world and grows up. Because children often do not understand the consequences of their action it's up to us to stay aware and informed—protecting them from others as well as from themselves. And as we continue to hurtle through the digital age and the data breach era, it will become paramount to protect your children in both a physical and digital sense, safeguarding their health, their privacy, and their identities.