Tech-positive parenting: how to keep your children safe in the digital age

From tough tablets to supervising software

Being a modern parent is terrifically difficult, balancing the need to keep your children safe online while enabling them to learn the crucial digital skills  they’ll need in adulthood.

Should you be monitoring their every move online? Only allowing certain apps? Or letting them run free as long as the passwords are strong and they know what phishing is?

Nina Bibby, Chief Marketing Officer at O2 – which recently launched an internet safety toolkit with the NSPCC – says this is a problem the network operator sees often.

“As ‘digital natives’, children and young people today have grown up with social media, tablets and smartphones at their fingertips. They play with iPads the way their parents played with colouring books[...].

“When my son tells me that he’s meeting his friends to play football, I always make sure to say ‘use the zebra crossing.’ But we often don’t use similar notes of caution when our kids go on the iPad.”

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be a tech-positive parent, but it’s important to be aware of the following points when raising kids to enjoy digital freedom without sacrificing security.

1. Teach them about strong passwords

It’s well-established that the username/password combo is a hugely fallible system, especially when humans (being naturally lazy) use the same ones on multiple sites.

Your children don’t need to follow the same patterns though, so set your kids up for success by teaching them how to create and remember strong passwords. If they can do that, they’re already ahead of most adults.

Douglas and Estelle Lloyd, founders of the child-safe online platform Azoomee, told TechRadar that the best way to start is to keep things simple.

“Children need to have something they don’t have to think about too much, to avoid always getting locked out. Memorable words don't work with kids [as they do with] adults, as passwords need to be longer than what they can often recall.

“When picking a password for children, it’s important to choose something that is already part of their everyday consciousness, such as their road name or school teacher. Instead of a word, try using a short sentence, like the first bit of a nursery rhyme. Maryhadalittlelamb is a lot easier to remember for a child than olliesmith123.”

For older children and teens, go one step further and abbreviate the sentence to letters. For instance, to upgrade Maryhadalittlelamb, take the first letter of each word in the first two lines and you get the pretty strong Mhallhfwwas - it looks like complete gibberish written down (and much more difficult for machines to crack), but isn’t too hard to input as long as they can remember the rhyme.

2. Talk about memorable information and phishing 

Possibly even worse than the username/password system is the almost inexplicably-widespread use of “memorable information” as a gatekeeper to highly sensitive account data. You might be savvy enough not to give out the name of your first pet, but is your child?

Will Liu, UK Country Manager at networking firm TP-Link, says that kids need to be taught the importance of this information from a young age.

“Children have a lot of access to password and login information as part of everyday home life. It's important they understand why they need to keep key information such as… a mother’s maiden name and birthdates private,” he told TechRadar.

“Parents should explain the implications of this kind of information falling into the wrong hands. For example, an innocent-looking email which asks the recipient to click on a link, or worse, asks for bank details or parents' names could result in the home PC being infected, or bank details being stolen, which could affect the family's credit rating.”

Overall, foster a family culture of mentioning anything that looks or sounds suspicious. If your kids know they can come to you about a strange email without feeling stupid if it’s fake, you’ve got a much better chance of avoiding problems.

3. Choose tech they can’t break

OK, maybe ‘can’t’ is wishful thinking, but you’ll save money and heartbreak if you choose tough tech designed to stand up to kids’ hijinks, rather than giving them your old iPad.

There are software benefits, too: tech made for kids often has content controls preinstalled, as well as child-friendly apps and safeguards.

One of our favourite tablets for kids, the Amazon Kindle Fire Kids’ Edition (£94.99/$99.99/about AU$135), comes with parental controls including time limits, learning goals, age-appropriate apps and a video subscription, and the added reassurance of free replacements within two years if your little one sees the “kid-proof” case as a challenge.

For kids aged 5-9 years old, O2’s NSPCC-endorsed family tablet comes with a free case and screen protector, plus a two-year subscription to child-safe platform Azoomee.

For younger ones, grab an extra-tough case (the Speck iGuy range for iPad, for instance) and an app like KidzInMind, designed to entertain 1- to 6-year-olds in an environment that stops them getting up to any offline mischief.

4. Protect them from cyberbullying

The spectre of online bullying is particularly frightening for parents who didn’t grow up in the digital age and have no idea how to stop it. 

A recent Intel Security study found that 60% of children aged 5-12 years old are entirely unsupervised during online time, which can render them vulnerable to malicious attacks.

TP Link’s Liu advises vigilance. “It's vital that children do not go onto social media sites without close supervision,” he says. “You also need to talk to teenagers frequently about what they are posting and their privacy settings.

“You won't be able to monitor everything they post, but the most effective thing you can do is make your teenager understand that any image posted on these platforms, however innocent, will live online forever. 

“Make them especially aware that sexting or being cajoled into providing webcam footage can lead to material being used maliciously later.

“And of course, if they are concerned about any material shared between friends, they must let you know immediately.”

Pete Turner, Consumer Security Expert at anti-virus firm Avast, agrees that education is the best strategy. “Be realistic about how children use the internet, [that] it’s an integral part of their lives, not a treat or a nice-to-have.

“Respect their dependence on it and collaborate with them on setting healthy standards for its use. Children should be able to use [phones, tablets and computers], but it may not always be obvious to them that there is a risk - and it’s natural behaviour for minors to be trusting.”

5. Offer freedom within limits 

For smartphones, laptops and tablets, software protection is the simplest way for parents to keep an eye on their little ones - and ensure peace of mind.

Avast’s Turner says, “As a parent it is only natural to want to protect your children, but...agreeing ground rules helps build digital independence.”

Online protection provider Bullguard CEO Paul Lipman agrees: “Parental controls block access to suspicious websites, put search filters in place, limit a child’s time online, discreetly monitor activity and can also block certain applications.

“It helps to keep your children safe from bullying and stops them being exposed to inappropriate content.”

6. Keep an eye on the IoT 

The security risks of Internet of Things (IoT) devices are well-documented - but what about the Internet of Toys? These are connected kids’ products, using Wi-Fi to enhance their interactivity - but as such are vulnerable to hackers and predators with worrying consequences.

Nicola Fulford, Head of Data Protection & Privacy at tech lawyers Kemp Little, says it’s a complicated problem.

“As with any internet-connected device, it is impossible to eliminate all risk, as a devoted hacker with sufficient resources will find a security vulnerability.

“Unfortunately, it’s not simply a case of restricting purchases of smart toys to trusted manufacturers - VTech suffered a PR disaster last year, as their proprietary app store database was hacked, exposing the personal information of 6 million children.

“Compromised data included photos of children, chat logs and audio recordings of conversations.

“Often, simple security protocols are not followed –  for example, a smart toy will automatically connect to a Wi-Fi network with a certain name, or will not require any password – offering hackers a simple point of entry to a network or device.

“Parents should be aware of this and security should be a factor when making purchasing decisions.”

Security firm Trend Micro recently released a thorough guide to IoT safety for kids, which includes practical guidelines for children’s tech products with camera, audio and location-tracking capabilities, which is well worth checking out if you’re worried about the dangers connected toys can bring.

This article is brought to you in association with Tesco Mobile