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November 09, 2016

Kids & Tech: Trying to keep your child connected and protected

Three security apps for worried parents

Let’s be honest: In 2016 it’s hard to keep kids, well… kids.

They’re so surrounded by media that it seems they’re aware of far more than many of us were at their age. It’s the blessing and the curse of technology.

Take my 11 year-old daughter.

After years of dodging her bullets — read: requests for a cell phone — with such precision and charisma that the oracle might’ve second guessed whether Neo was indeed the one, her father and I finally gave in.

Even then, he was far more comfortable with her having a phone than I was. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t trust her; I didn’t trust how easily she could be accessed by others.

The truth is, if she and her younger sister hadn’t been in a near fatal fire she’d likely still be without a phone. Emergencies such as that are enough to convince any parent of the benefits of communication technology.

But just a few months after granting her cell phone wish, we got a glimpse of the downside.

One evening she called out to me with a sound of disgust in her voice. She quickly approached, phone in hand, screen aimed towards me, extended as far away from her as possible.

I stepped closer and peered at the text message that was pulled up:

“Are you sure that your wife doesn’t deserve a sexually active husband sometimes?”

The text included a link (which my daughter thankfully did not click). The sender field included an email from “Perkins Office Solutions” but who knows the real source? After properly documenting the message, I erased it from her phone and revisited a conversation that we’d had early on about technology and its unwanted dangers. I also reached out to the company and still have yet to hear back from them.

Wanting to become a more empowered and informed parent, I reached out to Stephanie Humphrey, my go-to tech/life expert.

In addition to having a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Florida A&M University and a Master of Science in telecommunications & network engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, she also has years of experience in media. Her area of expertise is consumer technology, focusing on devices, gadgets, apps, social media and STEM. In short: her job is to show people how technology makes their lives easier.

Hopefully this give you some much needed tools to better protect and educate the kids in your life.

Kids are still kids, and can swipe and add filters all day long, but when it comes to actually understanding how their actions might affect others or who might be out there watching, they aren’t as savvy as a parent might think. 

What should every parent understand about the current tech landscape?

[Parents] tend to believe that because their children are digital natives, they know everything they need to know about that landscape. But I can assure you that is not the case. Kids are still kids, and can swipe and add filters all day long, but when it comes to actually understanding how their actions might affect others or who might be out there watching, they aren’t as savvy as a parent might think. The most important thing for a parent to understand is that they still have to be a part of the conversation with their young person as it relates to how that young person uses technology. Teaching good judgment, common sense, and respect for others will translate across any medium, whether it’s technical or not.

I know it’s a stretch but is there any way to protect our children from unwanted or inappropriate text messages from strangers?

Yes! There is different software out there that can do a variety of things — from only allowing a child’s smartphone to receive messages from people already in their contact list, to allowing a parent to set up a list of “flagged words” so that if a child receives a text message containing one of these words, the message will be blocked before the child sees it. Regardless of which software you use, if your child receives an unwanted text message, add that sender’s phone number to their blocked list immediately — this can be found in the settings on the phone.

What are three parental security apps, or something similar, that can help parents to stay informed and kids to remain safe?

MMGuardian is an app available for Android or iPhone that allows parents to set various parental controls on their child’s smartphone.

Pumpic Mobile Monitoring is a subscription service that also includes the “flagged words” capability — but it does require jailbreaking an iPhone, so if you’re not very technically savvy this may not be an option if your child has an iPhone.

Net Nanny is popular for monitoring online activity and apps, but currently doesn’t include any safeguards for text messages.

In addition to lots of other parental controls, the Qustodio app just added a new feature to monitor text messages and calls, and add numbers to a blocked list.

What would you like to see happen in the tech industry as it pertains to youth and their safety, or parents abilities to better protect their children?

I think companies are starting to understand the need for parents and children to be on the same page with technology. Lifelock has just introduced a collaboration with the National PTA to introduce The Smart Talk. It’s an online guide designed to get a conversation going between parents and kids about online responsibility. I think this is a great idea and a good start, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I think companies are starting to understand the need for parents and children to be on the same page with technology. 

It is smart that these companies are starting to understand this… but is it really enough, especially when it comes to social media?

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to do any sort of legitimate identity validation on social networks, so kids continue to be susceptible to predators using fake accounts. I feel like social networks need to make this a higher priority in their development efforts, along with their efforts to curtail abuse. And, as much as I love Apple, the way in which their operating system is set up limits the ability of parents to download some apps that could be protecting their kids —

I’d like to see some sort of effort on Apple’s part to allow for more flexibility in that area. Right now, the lion’s share of responsibility is on the parents to educate their children in the best way they can to be on the lookout for potential dangers and to keep that line of communication open with their kids.

For those parents who may consider themselves “helicopter parents” — do you have any commentary or advice to offer in regards to the ethics of spying on your child’s phone?

Not having children myself makes this question a bit tough, but my first thought is that you have to know your kid. You’re aware of who they are as a person, and how much responsibility they can handle. It goes along with growing up that children will test limits; they just now have different means to do it than parents might have had when they were young.

Kids already have a head start on most parents when it comes to understanding technology and figuring out how to do what they want with it, so maintaining an open dialogue with your child will probably go a lot further than any spying software ever could.

However, I will say that if you suspect your child may be in danger due to cyber bullying or some other online threat, then you have to take whatever measures you believe are necessary to ensure their safety.