February 9, 2016: Today is Safer Internet Day, and parents still face challenges in helping their kids stay safe while using the Internet. In addition to helping kids learn to use mobile devices responsibly, stay safe on social media, and manage screen time, parents have to contend with a new challenge posed by the Internet of Things (IoT) – smart toys.
Smart toys are essentially toys that connect to the Internet, and are set to become a large product category for IoT devices. A 2015 study projected total revenues from smart toys to reach 2.8 billion USD before the end of last year. However, last year’s well-known VTech hack that saw data about 6.4 million children stolen caused a moral panic about the security and privacy risks these toys carry for kids.
“The thing that parents need to know about smart toys is that they’re new terrain for parents and kids, but also manufacturers,” said Sean Sullivan, F-Secure Security Advisor. “Smart toys and IoT devices in general are a competitive market, and we’ve already seen numerous examples where security is treated as an afterthought. Companies are more interested in growing their customer base than securing customer data, so we’ll probably continue to see these cracks in smart toy security.”
Parenting Still Key for Protecting Kids Using IoT, Mobile Devices
Whether parents are concerned about IoT devices, mobile phones, or other Internet safety issues, the best approach for protecting kids is for parents to become involved in how their kids learn to use devices or online services. And data from a recent F-Secure survey shows that there’s a lot more space for parents to do this.
According to F-Secure Researcher Mikael Albrecht, this is problematic given how quickly technology, and how kids use it, is evolving. “Parents have resources they can use to protect kids on traditional PCs, but mobile devices and the IoT are a different story. They do not recognize children as a user group with distinctive needs, and this leaves parents with poor tools to manage their kids’ online safety. So while you have things like age restrictions, they’re so basic that kids can figure out how to get around them before parents know what’s happening.”
Sullivan and Albrecht agree that the best solution is for parents to engage with their kids and help them learn to use technology in healthy, positive ways. There are a few practical ways parents can approach helping their kids learn to use the Internet safely:
- Teach your kids, and let them teach you – “The world kids are growing up in is new, always changing, and difficult for parents to understand,” said Albrecht. “Parents need to accept this rather than fight it. Learning should work both ways and be done together – parents can learn about issues facing the kids, and kids can learn things parents understand, like the dangers of interacting with strangers.”
- Pay attention to what services they use – Parents should understand enough about the products and services kids are using to decide whether they are good or bad. “Educational apps typically strike a good balance between asking for information to help them improve their service, and respecting privacy,” said Sullivan. “They’ll ask for a year of birth to tailor content to the correct age group, but they won’t ask for the exact birthdate, or the kids’ full name. If you’re being asked to disclose exact birthdates, full names, or other things about your kid you’d rather keep private, move on to a better product.”
- Be present, but not overbearing – Kids need some degree of privacy, especially as they grow older. “I think it’s ok for parents to use technical solutions to keep an eye on what kids are doing online, but parents should be open about this and prepared to ease off as kids age,” said Albrecht. “Chances are kids will figure out these technical controls anyway, so trying to hide it is likely to backfire and cause kids to see their parents as big brother type figures.”