Digital controls physically protect children

Ten years ago, a 10-year old with a smartphone was the exception. Now it’s becoming the norm. The fact that respected technology publications like PCMag regularly update a “Top 10 Picks” of both phones and tablets for kids reflects this new reality. All devices may not be equal in terms of functionality, but they are all equal in terms of potential safety issues. “Cruising gaming chats” in apps like Fortnite is the new equivalent of “driving around neighborhoods in an old van”. Unfortunately, for all of the benefits technology and the internet have delivered, they have also increased the potential for success for sexual predators and human trafficking rings.

Whether a pre-teen or a college freshman, the potential risk is very real. A recent example is seen in arrests surrounding a drug ring near the University of Texas. As reported by the Associated Press, smart device apps were designed and used to sell Adderall, Xanax, LSD and other drugs. In this case, the allegation is that college age students were the “marketing target”. Someone’s child may not have been targeted for kidnapping, but they were being provided a discreet avenue to buy illegal drugs. For parents, this is likely to be just as scary of a thought.

This is the primary reason there should be some form of restrictions or at least visibility of a child’s activities on their devices. In most workplaces where computers are regularly used, employees are accustomed to having restrictions imposed that prevent them from installing software, changing operating system and application configurations, etc. Too often, though, I see young children and teenagers with smartphones and tablets that have no such restrictions. In these instances, a child has essentially been made a System Administrator on their device. While this may be great news to the child, it is the opposite for parents.

For younger kids, basic controls such as requiring approval to install apps is a must. Ensuring that rating and time use limits is also key. This doesn’t mean that, as a parent, you’re done. It is also important to check each and every parental control related option. Should a 12-year old be able to “friend” just anyone through a game app or participate in full online play? Should a 9-year old have unrestricted access to Youtube™? I would say no, but each parent has the right to determining their own style. As a Cybersecurity professional, I am obviously hyper-focused on security and, more important, safety.  For this reason, I have in the past configured my children’s devices to restrict the deletion of apps. Why? If something does get installed without your approval, you want to know about it. In some cases, kids will correctly guess your parental controls PIN and update their permissions. Growing up “with” technology (as 30 and 40-something have) and growing up “in” technology are two different things. For parents, they have seen technology emerge and evolve. For kids, they don’t know life without it. This often means that they are instinctively more saavy in the use of technology than their parents. This isn’t an insult to parents. It’s simply a statement of fact.

So how do parents establish control on content, communication, and time restrictions? It starts at the operating system level. For Apple™ iPhone and iPad users, this equates to iOS. By design, Apple integrates a fairly robust control platform that makes it pretty easy for parents. (Apple Parental Controls Overview). Admittedly, the website restrictions in iOS are less robust, so some parents may find more peace of mind in purchasing software that can be used on home computers, tablets, and smart phones. Reasonably priced and dependable offerings exist from pure webcontent filtering software like NetNanny™ to full antivirus, fraudulent website detection, and webcontent filtering options like BitDefender™.  For Android users, a combined parental-managed security app will likely be required, since device manufacturers often use different flavors of the base operating system. A good place to start for Android-based parents (yes, a dad joke on my part) is the SecureTeen™ website. It offers basic tips on securing Android devices as well as offering their own paid version of safety-minded software.

For parents of older children (e.g. high school and college age), the danger goes beyond simple apps. Increasingly, teenagers are routinely sending and receiving photos that fall under the umbrella of child pornography. It doesn’t matter that it may be two 16-year olds doing it. Both parties can be charged with the crime of possessing it. In this scenario, it may be more about regular monitoring, instead of technological restrictions. At a minimum, parents would be wise to implement the policy that there is no such thing as privacy on a device that the parent is providing. As long as they are legally responsible, parents should insist on having their child’s usernames and passwords for email, gaming, and other accounts. After that, it’s up to the parent to regularly look at devices and see what’s installed, transmitted, and received. For this reason, it is recommendable to keep older teenagers as part of family accounts, since this will at least give a parent visibility of what apps (even free ones) their child is installing, how much bandwidth they are consuming, and other data that might indicate something is awry.

There are some parents who will say their younger or older child doesn’t need restrictions or monitoring because they are trustworthy. If this is the case, that’s great. Unfortunately, parents cannot say the same for every other technology user. The fact is that parental restrictions are about more than controlling a kid’s activities on their digital devices. It’s about maximizing their safety. In the physical world, a good parent won’t let their child go outside to play around the block, out of sight, without warning them to come check in every 30-minutes and avoid strangers. So why would a parent give a child a device and not lay the same ground rules in the virtual world? To add done more ember to the fire, restrictions and monitoring activities can be key identifying cyberbullying. This increases the probability of a parent finding out their child is the victim or the perpetrator. As evidenced by the increasing number of teen self-harmings and suicides, the problem is very real and growing.

Ultimately, it’s up to each parent to decide what to do…or not to do. The purpose herein isn’t to judge. Moreover, the goal is to ensure parents understand the full range of bad possibilities created through smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices. It may not make us popular with our children now, but the fact that our kids will be able to look back upon the restrictions and monitoring, as an adult, will mean we did the right thing and protected them to the greatest extent possible. At the end of the day, that’s what parenting is about.

(This article was originally posted on Geek Shui Living in 2020. It’s reposted on C2PK based upon the fact that the information is still of great value to parents.)