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Kids and smartphones .... what I say to parents

By Tim Mitchell on 07 Nov, 2013

I originally wrote this blog for mobilesecurity.com but with their blessing I've pinched it back to post on our own website.

I'm regularly asked: "What advice can you give me about my kids and smartphones?"

"How long have you got," I reply, followed by a suggestion that we sit down and chat over a cup of coffee - which invariably pleases my inquisitor because they're going to get some free advice, and invariably pleases me as it feeds my insatiable caffeine addiction.

I start by talking about the fact that a smartphone is a completely unprecedented commodity which incorporates the combined functions of a computer, map, camera, library, notepad, filing cabinet and MP3 player and, soon, a wallet or purse. Oh, and of course, a phone.

The key, I continue, is that a smartphone is 'connected', in other words that compact, hand held device opens the door to the entire internet ... and everything and everybody on it. However sheltered a life my companion may lead, they quickly make the connection between this and the plethora of 'bad stuff' they read or hear about the internet. 

So this is a good time to mention that anything that they know about keeping their child safe on a computer also applies to a smartphone, except more so, as it's easier to exert some kind of monitoring and control over what they do on the family (or their own) computer than on this pocket miracle that they take to their room, to school, to the park, to their friends, and so on. And whatever they can do, see, read, watch, download or buy on the computer, they can do on their phone, but away from their parents' prying (caring) eyes.

So that's when we talk about not only setting boundaries, but getting their kids to show them the latest cool stuff online, chat about who their friends are and work with them softly-softly as they make the physical and emotional journey towards digital maturity. As well as setting up parental controls and checking out the most suitable mobile parental monitoring and control software. Plus, of course, making sure that their devices have up-to-date antivirus software loaded and switched on. Yep, mobiles are a favourite target for virus writers and fraudsters too.

Then there are the aspects of smartphones that are peculiar to the breed that won't be encountered on computers.

Such as apps, which are playing an increasingly important role in our lives. The latest figures I can find for apps available for each platform are from January this year: Google Play/Android - 800,000, Apple App Store - 775,000, Windows Phone Marketplace - 125,000, Blackberry World - 70,000. Wow! Armed with their parents' login details, kids can adeptly download any app from their phone's app store, including age-rated apps (for example to access gambling or porn), malware-infected apps, expensive-to-purchase apps or those in which they can make in-app purchases, which can run up huge bills.

Then there are features like location services, which can be great for kids to check out how close they are to their friends' houses or to let their parents know where they are if they get lost. However, location services can also have pitfalls, like receiving ads or offers from local businesses or - on a more sinister level - enabling less desirable people to monitor their routine from tagged locations, photos or posts.

One of the biggest benefits of a smartphone, I say finishing my cappuccino and dropping hints that a second would be welcome, is also one of its biggest downfalls. The physical size of today's devices make them very easy to drop, damage, mislay, leave somewhere or lose to theft. It's not just the expense of replacing the phone to consider, but all of the personal data, photos, bookmarks, emails, and other information that could spell payday for fraudsters. To say nothing of the unbearable playground stigma of not having the latest phone.

This, I say, underlines why we always say 'put a PIN on it' (which obviously applies equally to adults as well as children, despite the fact that 51% of us don't!). Any mobile device not protected with a PIN is a disaster waiting to happen.

Generally, that covers it. Our chat didn't go into too much detail, there's only so much that can be taken in in a short space of time. I might give them one of my cards with our website address www.getsafeonline.org on it and suggest that they visit both the 'Safeguarding Children' and 'Smartphones & Tablets' pages.

As a grandparent myself to young children, I wonder if it will be quite so easy to give my own grown-up kids the online facts of life. Only over a large cappuccino, probably.

*Source: Research carried out for Get Safe Online by Vision Critical