Each month in this column, we explore ways to safeguard things that are important to you: your assets. Usually, we focus on intangible assets like your credit card number, your identity and company trade secrets. But when you ask people what is most important to them, their families are usually at the top of the list. Having your credit card number stolen makes for a stressful experience, but it pales in comparison to the feeling of having a child or elderly parent’s safety compromised.
While the digital advancements we see daily can sometimes make life easier, they can also make it more complicated and make the act of maintaining a safe environment far more difficult, especially for parents. As of 2011, one in five elementary school students owned a cell phone. Instead of playing pretend and building sand castles, they are spending recess on Snapchat and Facebook. Many young children are exposed to smartphones as infants; instead of handing their little babies rattles, overstressed mothers are reaching more and more for their phones and tablets.
Arming your 9-year-old with a bright shiny new iPhone might make him the coolest kid on the playground, but it also paints a target on his head for both schoolyard and adult thieves. The expression “taking candy from a baby” becomes far more tempting to a thief when that candy is a $400 toy.
If you’re buying a phone for a child, at least consider what you actually want. Do you just want a reliable means of communication in case of emergency? Non-smart “feature phones” are still widely available from every major carrier, especially for their no-contract plans. These phones come in a variety of sizes and user interfaces: flip phones, Blackberry lookalikes with full keyboards, touchscreens and more. They cost somewhere around $10 for the phone and $25 per month for unlimited minutes. There are no malicious apps to download and no time wasted in class on Facebook.
If you really feel your child needs a smartphone, take precautions. Certain apps have user interfaces more suited to children. A parent sets up the main administrative account, locked with a password, and determines which apps and features the child can use. The phone is then put into a simple mode that allows only those. The appropriately titled “Kid Mode” by Zoodles (a default on newer HTC phones) is the most commonly seen app of this kind for Android devices.
For iPhones and iPads, consider the options in the “Settings” panel. The “Guided Access” option (Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access) allows someone to lock a device to allow the use of only a single app. All other features are locked until the user enters the correct PIN. This is useful if you load a game on your own device and hand it to your child.
An even more important collection of settings is found in the “Restrictions” panel (Settings > General > Restrictions). This allows an administrator (such as a parent) to control exactly what the device is and isn’t allowed to do. Parents can disable in-app purchases, control the types of websites that are available through Safari (or disable it altogether), and limit or remove a child’s ability to play games or add friends in the Apple Game Center.
There is one distinct advantage to giving your offspring a smartphone: You now have a GPS tracker on your child, and he or she will never want to leave it behind. Apps like Cerberus, PhoneSheriff, NetNanny and My Mobile Watchdog allow parents to precisely pinpoint a child’s GPS location, listen in on her conversations and intercept her communications.
Having access to this information may seem intrusive, but consider: If your child was communicating with a dangerous individual online, you’d be the first to know. In the horrifying possibility of a child abduction, having access to the phone’s GPS location could mean the difference between life and death.
As with any scientific advancements, smartphone technology can be applied positively or negatively. Parents need to be aware of these options to make educated decisions about how to approach the smartphone issue with their kids.
Notably, many of these same concepts can also be used to help the elderly, including a parent with dementia or failing health. Keeping track of a parent’s location and helping to block bad web content can prevent your parent from getting scammed or being physically injured. A number of technological advancements are marketed directly at the elderly, such as emergency cellphone wristbands, remote monitoring systems for nursing homes, and most interestingly a special type of desktop computer that provides a simplified user interface for the elderly.
These kinds of computers come with a specific set of advantages and disadvantages, and as with all new technology there are many consumer questions that need answered. Are they really useful? Are they worth the money over a standard computer? What are the alternatives? Next month, we will continue our “Human Asset” series by looking at these elderly targeted computers in depth, as well as a handful of alternative solutions.
Written in collaboration with information security expert Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.