Internet-enabled toys, kids, and their safety

It has always been a time to worry if you are a parent. The threats have changed, and because they now seem out of your control, are more likely to keep you awake in the small hours, wondering.

Recent press stories have not helped, either. First came the shock of the massive hack of Vtech, exposing data and images uploaded from Vtech products. Then there were claims that Google stores the data from children in schools in the UK and US. Most recently we learn that an Internet-enabled Barbie doll has a major security vulnerability and can be hacked.

What, as a parent, should you do? You can hardly ban everything capable of connecting to the outside world from the home. In any case, they all need phones, tablets, and more. Should you be a Luddite and kick out the Raspberry Pi too?

One of the most important messages is that, like bikes, skateboards, swimming, and team sports, anything and everything that kids do carries a risk. Your task as a parent is not to try to make risk go away altogether, but to help your child(ren) learn how to manage their own risk.

When they are young, you will have to make the decisions for them, and manage their risk closely. As they grow older, they have to learn how to do it for themselves. If you never let them cross the road unsupervised until they leave home, they are going to find their first day out on their own very worrying, and dangerous; the same goes for the Internet.

Another good ground rule is that your kids (or you on their behalf) should never release anything outside your home network which could be harmful to them if it became public. Although it is scarey when hackers acquire ordinary family snapshots, those images should not result in any harm.

You also need to be critical about the protection that services afford to data from children. As I have explained before, Apple makes very explicit statements about the special provisions which it makes with respect to children’s data. Its Family Sharing system is intended to provide that extra level of protection, when used properly.

Other online services may not be as protective: you must check in their Privacy Policy and other documentation what protection is provided. If they don’t describe explicitly how they protect children – or even worse, state that users are assumed to be adults – then you should keep your kids well away, or treat the service as being completely insecure.

More generally, Apple provides excellent safeguards for children and vulnerable adults in both OS X and iOS. On iPhones and iPads you access them in the General app, under Restrictions; in OS X, they are centred on the Parental Controls pane, which I have described here.

When you look at toys and electronic devices for your child(ren), you should see equivalent protection to those, which you can control and your child(ren) cannot tamper with. If those controls do not exist, treat the toy or device as being completely unprotected. For younger children, that will mean that it can only be used under close supervision, at least until you are confident that they will use it safely. You would not let a young child play unsupervised with anything else which is capable of harming them, would you?

Finally, we all have a role as parents, carers, even grandparents to ensure that companies who are trying to profit from Internet-enabled toys (and other products aimed at children) do so responsibly. If you think that a company is not behaving responsibly, then raise your concerns. Twitter is often a good way of getting rapid attention from organisations who might otherwise give you a stern ignoring. Most countries have excellent consumer organisations, which are only too happy to hear of such threats to children.

I hope that your children, grandchildren, nephews, neices, and others can learn how to benefit from the joys and riches of the Internet, while remaining safe and secure.