A Parent’s Guide to Mobile Security for Kids

Our world is more connected than ever, and as a parent, this presents you with some unique challenges and opportunities. How do you embrace modern technology and all of the conveniences it offers, while also ensuring that your children are safe online when using their mobile devices? This is an issue that parents from previous generations have never had to grapple with. As such, there's unfortunately no textbook you can sign out at your local library with proven parenting methods when it comes to smartphone security for kids.

With that said, you aren’t in this alone. There are a number of best practices and resources that you can use to ensure that your children remain safe online when using their iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. With the right combination of education at home and third-party tools to assist you, you can make a huge difference in the number of risks and type of risks your child could face. Most importantly, you can ensure they make smart decisions for themselves online when you aren’t there to supervise.

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably come to conclusion that simply preventing your children from using mobile devices is not the solution. Kids are using tablets and laptops in their classrooms, as well as getting smartphones for communication at younger and younger ages. Instead of banning smartphones and other mobile devices in your home, it’s important to be prepared to tackle the issue of mobile security head on. This guide has been designed to provide you with all the  information, tools, and advice you'll need so that you're up for the task.

The growth of smartphone ownership amongst children

These days, smartphone ownership among working adults is incredibly high. But the fastest growing demographic for smartphone ownership isn’t even able to vote or buy a drink at a bar. The numbers when it comes to smartphone ownership amongst youth are growing rapidly as more and more families see the value in having these devices for things like texting and location tracking. Parents can stay connected with kids, and kids can use the powerful tools in their smartphone to help manage their increasingly busy lives between school, sports, and other extracurricular activities. A recent study found that 95% of teens regularly use Android phones and iPhones, which means that they either own their own phone or at least have access to one they can borrow. This means that teens are constantly connected to the world through a device in their hands.

Perhaps even more surprising for some is the number of preteens who also have their own smartphones. Nearly half of kids between 10 and 12 year-old have a smartphone of their own. While to some parents, this may seem far too young, it appears that half of all families in the United States feel differently.

Unfortunately, there’s a stark difference between the risks adults face online, and those that children are subjected to. Sure, some online risks affect everyone, regardless of age, like identity theft. Children, however, also face the prospect of online predators, explicit content, inappropriate content, and an epidemic of cyber bullying. With the smartphone ownership numbers amongst younger children increasing, it’s time to consider the unique situations that they may face when they access the world through their smartphone.

What are the greatest risks for kids and teenagers using smartphones?

The Internet is seemingly endless, and smartphones are a portal to a world with virtually unlimited content to consume. And of course, not all of the content and interaction and child may encounter online is positive. 

The obvious concern when it comes to allowing young people online is the number of predators that may seek to build inappropriate relationships with them, including sharing personal information, sending photos, and potentially even meeting in real life. Staying ahead of this problem has proven to be difficult for some parents and authorities as new apps or social networking platforms are introduced all the time. While most adults may simply interact on a handful of popular, well-known social media platforms, kids are often at the cutting edge of the newest social media apps, which can make it hard to keep up with all the changes. It’s important to be aware of the realities of online interactions, however. While stories of online predators often get media attention, they are thankfully becoming less and less frequent as both parents and children educate themselves about online interactions. In fact, unwanted sexual solicitations online have declined over 50% in recent years. While being aware of strangers is important, don't just focus all of your efforts on this one specific danger associated with smartphone use. Have a wide-ranging conversation with your child regarding online safety instead.

Online bullying is a growing concern around the world. As children get smartphones of their own, it makes it easy for bullies to reach out to their victims at all hours of the day. This has lead to an increase in the number of children reporting being bullied online, with 20% of kids saying they have experienced this modern form of bullying that extends well beyond just the schoolyard. Sadly, being bullied by classmates online is far more common than being approached by a stranger online. Worst of all, the effects of online bullying can be devastating, since many children will develop depression, experience other personality changes, and even resort to self-harm in some cases. 

It can also be just as difficult to find out that your child is participating in bullying. This is another danger with owning a smartphone as many children, who were previously not the type to be a bully, find themselves wrapped up in a group mentality that can quickly escalate. Just like being bullied, becoming a bully can have serious social consequences, as some will also develop depression and long-term mood changes that can affect their grades in school, and even their willingness to stay in school. 

Another risk of mobile use in kids and teens is smartphone addiction. This is a growing problem that has not received a lot of attention until recently, as children with developing brains have had more and more access to mobile devices. Research has shown that a majority of teens log a ton of screen time.  Many check their phones on an hourly basis, feel pressure to respond to messages immediately, and 24% of teens report being online almost constantly. The bright colors of the smartphone display, the blue light it emits, and the instant gratification of receiving messages and/or likes can have severe consequences. Some kids may feel sadness when away from their phone, their attention may drift away from important tasks like focusing in class, and using their phone late at night can affect their sleep cycles.  As a parent, setting time limits on cell phone use is critical.  

Finally, privacy is always a major concern when talking about mobile phones. Every Apple and Google app, as well as every service, has some sort of privacy policy that requires information sharing from users. For people under the age of 18, this data can identify them to companies and third-parties. What’s more, your child may never be able to remove their data from these services, and there's no telling how securely the data is being stored. We've seen countless information breaches in recent years, and many people who have had their data stolen are underage smartphone users who didn’t fully consider the consequences of sharing their personal information at the time.

What are the positives of kids owning a smartphone?

Of course, not everything is doom and gloom when it comes to cellphones, and there are many positive aspects to owning a smartphone.  For example, they can help your kids organize their life, stay connected, and learn about the world. And depending on age, they can also help them become more independent and manage their schedule between classes, sports, volunteering, and work.

As children get older, they begin to take on more and more responsibility in their lives. You may have already noticed this already depending on how old your children are. First, they begin walking home from school instead of going to an after-school care program. Then, they may take on extracurricular activities like sports or clubs where they spend additional time at school. They may even start visiting friend’s homes and/or get a part time job.  For peace of mind on your part, location services can be enabled on their phones so that you can keep tabs on where they are at all times, which helps to ensure their safety.

There are also many schools moving towards an online infrastructure when it comes to sharing assignments, grades, and messages from teachers. Students can use their smartphones to easily check up on upcoming assignments, submit their completed assignments, and even communicate with their teachers or classmates. As more schools move to this model and expand the services they offer online, having some sort of mobile device may be an essential thing for students to be able to make the most of the online services available to them.

A smartphone is also a way for teens to show their own responsibility and independence. They may have owning a smartphone near the top of their list of savings goals when they begin their own job. Having a smartphone can be something for teens to work toward and give them an important sense of accomplishment. If they have a service plan, it can be a great way to teach the responsibility of paying a monthly bill on time and keep them focused on keeping up with their responsibilities and work schedule.

What laws protect children online?

Many parents assume there are laws to help keep their kids safe online. If you were hoping that this would be the case, you may be in for some shock. The United States and many countries around the world have laws regarding children online but many of them are woefully outdated and insufficient for the modern realities of the online world.

In the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is in place to outline the rules around collecting and sharing data of minors. Apps and services that operate in the United States must be compliant with COPPA or face fines. The regulations require parents of minors to be able to provide consent before their children sign up for online services and also outlines how consent must be verified. This is a good step but still exposes children to the challenges that come with lengthy and confusing privacy statements that many parents don’t even understand themselves. COPPA also lays out rules for marketing to minors which is important for young people who may be more easily swayed or influenced by online marketing. 

In the EU, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) takes things a little further than COPPA. This new regulation was passed in 2018 and requires parents of kids under 16 to be able to provide consent before their child signs up for online services. GDPR also has rules for all online users that give them a lot more control over their own data.

However, in the case of both GDPR and COPPA, regulations only go so far in actually protecting children from many concerns like bullying, online predators, and smartphone addiction. Privacy is just one part of the overall picture when it comes to children using mobile devices online.

How can you educate and protect your child online?

As a parent, you need to take a leading role in protecting your child online. This can be done through education, frank discussions, and some of the available tools created to help parents manage and monitor their child’s online activities.

When it comes to safety online, it all begins at home with you as a parent. Not only should your children see you as a resource, they should also understand that you’re someone they can turn to when they run into challenges like online bullying or being approached by a stranger. Take time to discuss the risks of being online in a non-confrontational way. Use news stories about experiences of others to help frame the discussion so that your child doesn’t feel like they are on trial. Give them opportunity to share their thoughts and ask questions as well.

There are some third-party tools that you can use in addition to education and discussion at home to help monitor your child’s online activities. Some services will even allow you to set device parameters that determine how long a device can be used or active on the internet. Tracking services are built into many platforms that will locate where a child is even if they aren’t responding to messages or phone calls. Some, or all, of these tools can be utilized by your family to reinforce the discussions you have had. Each family will have unique needs and situations which may make some tools more important to you than others. For example, some parents may simply want to ensure their child isn’t using their device at late hours and disturbing their sleep. Other parents may want to monitor for online bullying which, unfortunately, many children feel embarrassed about sharing with parents or teachers. Online protection tools can be customized and tailored to meet your specific goals.

Finally, there are also education options like online quizzes and games to help kids understand more about online safety. These services are usually targeted at kids as they enter the age where they may start to become more proficient and independent online. Online education services are a great way to introduce the conversation about online safety in a way that’s fun and age appropriate.

What services and tools are available to help keep kids safer online?

You’re not alone when it comes to ensuring your child is safe online. However, you do need to take a leadership role with your child to identify solutions that are right for your family. 

Internet Safe Training offers unique courses for each age range to help schools or parents lead lesson plans for children. This is something that's good for both both adults and children to make use of. For parents and teachers, these courses help create lesson plans and discussions around online safety, including topics like sexting and how much time use is acceptable on a daily basis . There is also information about how to maintain better control over a child’s online experience and ensure that you are always a part of the discussion.

Qustodio is a multi-platform service that provides parents with a sleek web interface or mobile app, which is downloadable via the iTunes app store and Google Play Store, to manage their children’s online activities. This paid service costs as little as $39.95, which means it is more expensive than some other methods available. On the flip side, however, it offers an impressive suite of features. Parents can set time restrictions on devices, monitor web traffic history, block certain websites or services, and even monitor text messages in some apps and on social media networks. Qustodio gives you powerful control in one simple to use package. 

Kaspersky Safe Kids is one of the more popular parental control apps, and also one of the most affordable options. It's easy to set up, and like other services, you'll be able to set time filters on your child's device, as well as monitor location, and keep an eye on online activity. All of this starts at $14.99 per month, and gives you the management controls you’re looking for, all at a price-point that won't break the bank.

Alex Grant
 

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