teens social media
How do you monitor a digital generation on its own turf? Image Credit: Shutterstock

It’s a sort of coming-of-age thing: duplicity when you are a teenager. The current band is called Gen Z, those born between 1995 and 2010, and they are the terrifying concussion of tech savvy and outspoken attitude. Puppeteering the advertising and social media world with their fingertips, Gen Z seem to control the social media platforms worth hailing, the social phenomena worth cancelling, and the social media talent worth celebrating (think Love Nwantiti’s TikTok dance challenge).

But how do they do it without being caught? Perhaps it’s practice. According to the ‘How the Middle East Used Social Media in 2020’ report published by the UAE-based New Media Academy, users in the UAE have more than 10 accounts on social media platforms and spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media. COVID-19, which resulted in more screen time has only meant a usage spike in that period.


Within those 3.5 hours, no matter the level of security, Gen Z may come across sexual and violent content or come in contact with global strangers with ill intent – anti-social elements are constantly trying to get past these hurdles, worldwide. Add to that mix, the vulnerable developmental stage of puberty whereby teens become highly susceptible to body image insecurities, risk-taking behaviour to fit in, a lingering curiosity to find their identity and you have yourself a disastrous recipe of social media misuse.

As parents, the only way to shield your adolescent is to educate yourself with the social media threats they may face and more importantly, to familiarise yourself with the social media tricks that teenagers are using to conceal their social media activity. Fake apps that conceal real accounts, hiding the programs in plain sight – teenagers, who have spoken upon condition of anonymity, reveal their hacks to hide their social media footprint.

3.5 hours

Amount of time social media users in UAE spend online.

Decoy apps

As the name suggests, decoy apps utilise a deceiving icon such as a calculator, utility, audio manager or even a game to disguise their true function of being app hiders. Such app hiders can be populated with inappropriate apps, videos, photos, audio messages, texts and files. Using password protection and fingerprint, the adolescent can ensure that parents will not have access to their personal content even if they discover the decoy app. The bad news is that the majority of decoy apps tend to be free and thus adolescents can easily install popular apps such as Calculator Vault, Hide it Pro, KeepSafe, and Applocker.

David, a 13-year-old Korean student residing in Dubai, says: “Parents underestimate the lengths we are willing to go to protect our social media activity because almost all the entertaining apps we use are [considered] inappropriate for our age. For example, my parents do not allow me to use TikTok because of the age limit and because of its inappropriate video content in terms of violent language, sexual behavior, bullying and dangerous challenges. So, to secretly access it I had to bypass the age limit by creating a fake account with an older date of birth. This trick worked easily because TikTok does not have any age verification setting.

TikTok 1
TikTok is a short video sharing application Image Credit: AFP

“Yet the bigger issue was bypassing my parent’s monitoring, and so I did a little research and found out about decoy apps. I use Calculator Vault because you can download it for free, and because it looks like a real calculator. But in reality, it is an app hider that uses a password to hide all my inappropriate apps such as TikTok, as well as any inappropriate videos I save. This has been the most successful trick for me, because if you are a parent, would you really open a calculator icon when your child is simply trying to solve some Math?”

Éléonore Brocq, Clinical Psychologist, Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic, told Gulf News in an interview earlier of the importance to communicate with the kids and explain why they shouldn’t be on a particular platform before the advised age. “I always start from the law because if we tell our kids, it’s okay to set up an account before they’re 13 years of age, we are sending them a powerful message that it’s okay to break the law and that’s a difficult moral position to come back from as parents or as adults,” she says.

This ‘talk’ should be before letting them using the device but also be recurring once or twice a year to have a clear vision about what they are experiencing at each moment of their development.

- M Thenral

But if it must happen, it’s important to gain the trust of a child enough for him/her to be able to come talk to you about the fallout he/she is experiencing.

M Thenral, Specialist Psychiatrist, Aster Clinic, calls for ‘the talk’ – discussions on the pros and cons of a platform, possibility of inappropriate material and how they should handle an awkward moment. “This ‘talk’ should be before letting them using the device but also be recurring once or twice a year to have a clear vision about what they are experiencing at each moment of their development,” says Thenral.

Hiding apps via device settings

Another sly tactic that adolescents use to conceal their social media activity is through manipulating the built-in settings of their phone devices. Using the iPhone settings, an adolescent may hide the inappropriate app in a mislabelled folder such as “utilities”. The first step is to populate this folder with several pages of appropriate apps so that it can distract you from the one hidden app in the farthest page. The next step is to place the mislabelled folder on the farthest right of the device screen (or in a new home screen) and press the home button. This guarantees that the inappropriate app is locked in its inconvenient location, and in turn, significantly reduces the chance of a parent discovering it – especially if parents are unaware of the app’s name. For Android users, hiding apps is significantly easier as the built-in feature of ‘hide applications’ in the AppDrawer allow you to hide and unhide any inappropriate app.

beeping app
Image Credit: Giphy

Mariam, a 16-year-old Jordanian student residing in Dubai, chuckles about the ignorance of parents, saying, “We are very aware that our parents will consistently place us under the microscope of social media monitoring until we become ‘mature enough’ to deserve privacy. So, in retaliation we adopt tech tricks from our friends or the internet to manoeuvre their monitoring.

“The easiest way is to hide inappropriate apps by placing them in mislabelled folders such as ‘schoolwork’ because parents will never physically open every app in that folder. My friend has an Android phone so hiding apps like [chat app] Omegle is even easier for her because the hiding option is already built in within the phone. Omegle is now banned in the UAE, but we still hide similar apps that allow us to video call and chat with strangers. It is entertaining because the app will randomly connect you to any stranger around the world. Hence, you cannot predict who you will see, what they will be doing, or what they will be saying. The major downside is that a significant part of the video calls consist of inappropriate interactions with adults. My friends and I are still in school, yet in one of the video calls there was an adult male who behaved in a sexually inappropriate way.

“Despite laughing about the incident, I am aware that such apps can cause a lot of damage to younger and more vulnerable adolescents. But when it comes to me, I know where to draw the line and I know how to identify a potential abuser as I am a psychology student. Still, I would never keep this app displayed on my phone because my parents constantly monitor my social media activity and are technologically up to date. Hence the magic trick is to hide the app because it will literally take me 15 seconds to remove evidence in case of a surprise ‘let me check your phone’ moment’.”

When should you worry?
Sometimes, children can process a situation and not be waylaid; but this isn’t true for all kids. There are key behavioural markers that we can look at to determine whether the child is moving to unhealthy levels of social media use and distress, Dr Thenral told Gulf News in an earlier interview. The red flag signs are:
• Losing interest in other activities – preferring media use, neglecting other hobbies and activities.
• Pre-occupation with screen media.
• Media as a mood booster – being online seems to be the only thing that helps the child feel better.
• Tolerance - constantly using a device and keeps wanting more and more screen time.
• Withdrawal - frustration and behavioural problems when cannot use media.
• Difficulty controlling the screen use - throwing temper tantrums when asked to turn-off devices.
• Deception - sneaking a device or lying about the time spent on using it.
• Decline in academic performance
• Effects of physical health - if child does not get enough sleep or is tired throughout the day.
• Psycho-social disturbances- becoming less interactive and no longer seeking friends.

Finsta accounts

‘Finsta’ is the slang term for fake Instagram, whereby a teenager creates a secondary secret Instagram account with their candid posts and pictures. This account tends to include a closer circle of friends due to the personal and private content that is shared. Or in cases such as 15-year-old student Ayesha’s, the Finsta account includes a larger following and follower base of a more liberal nature. The end result of this social media tactic is to have a public account with ‘appropriate content’ to mask the secondary private account with ‘inappropriate content’.

Giph for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Giphy

Ayesha explains, “I come from a very conservative family that forbids me from interacting with males, whether I am in the mall or even in school. So naturally to protect me from dangerous interactions, my parents did not allow me to own a mobile phone or use social media until I turned 15 years old. The first mobile app I downloaded was Instagram because all my classmates were using it. Yet this came with an expensive cost and strict conditions. For, I had to add my mother on my Instagram account and give her monitoring rights. In other words, it was her right to open my phone whenever she pleased, it was her right to decide whether I was following appropriate accounts or whether I should unfollow specific influencers for their inappropriate content, and it was her right to control which friend requests I should accept or ignore. Instead of trying to convince my mother that I deserve privacy, I opted for a ‘Finsta’. Using this ‘fake’ Instagram option, I can show my mother a fake account that contains modest, safe, and appropriate content. But at the same time, I can express my true self using another ‘real’ Instagram account. In my real account, I have accepted 431 followers of both genders, many of which are strangers from varied ethnicities and ages. Likewise, I have followed over 800 accounts that include influencers, models, mental health content, and dark humor content.

“More importantly, I have posted so many selfies and shared sensitive content that reflects my raw life and my unique trauma… and no one will ever know because whenever my mother checks my phone, she will always only see my fake Instagram account.”

Parents: Where should you look?

There is a fine line between monitoring social media and preventing autonomy. | Above: Photo for illustrative purposes.

As a parent, your chances of searching and finding the username of your teenager’s Finsta account are slim, as the Gen Z generation is too witty to choose a username that can easily identify them. A more reliable solution is to open your teenager’s Instagram account and click on their profile icon on the bottom right-hand corner. This will automatically display all the accounts that are correlated with your teenager’s email, be it their fake or real account. In fact, even if your teenager has signed out of their ‘real’ account, rest assured that Instagram will still display all the existing accounts.

Yet finding your way around the hidden app minefield will require more rigor and patience. The good news is that a simple search in the iPhone library, Appstore Purchase instalments, or AppDrawer will show you whether hidden apps exist in your teen’s phone. But the bad news is that there are countless apps being innovated every day to protect social media activity and sensitive data.

Bottom line

Educating yourself about the tactics that Gen Z use to conceal their suspicious social media activity may play a crucial role in protecting your adolescent from a predatory world of manipulation, bullying, abuse, sex and violence. Yet there is a fine line between monitoring social media and preventing autonomy. Excessive monitoring will only breed tech-savvy teenagers who become socialised to hide their social media activity, or even worse, hide their true identity from their parents. A more efficient solution that builds a trusting relationship between the adolescent and their parent, is to encourage autonomy. That is, enrich your teenager with knowledge and awareness regarding the potential harms of social media activity and the potential harms of hiding such activity, so that you can instil a moral compass within them that will help them navigate the dangers of social media on their own, whether you are monitoring them or not.

The silver lining of having a tech-savvy Gen Z, is that they can channel these social media tactics into positive censorship. Exhibit A is Filipo, a 17-year-old Italian Swiss teenager who proudly explains, “I don’t necessarily use any apps to hide my social media activity. Yet one thing I do to limit my personal use and activity is remove the notifications from my apps so that I don’t have the urge to open the app as soon as the message arrives.” The bottom line is, not every adolescent will misuse technology or hide their inappropriate social media activity. Yet every adolescent deserves to be empowered with knowledge, communication, and autonomy so that a healthier relationship can be nurtured with their parents, social media, and themselves.

-The writer is a psychology lecturer in the UAE.

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