F-Secure’s security advisors warn parents to become more aware of the risks posed by new Internet of Things toys designed for children this Safer Internet Day.
Today is Safer Internet Day and parents still face challenges in helping their children stay safe while using the Internet. But in addition to helping children learn to use mobile devices responsibly, stay safe on social media and manage, 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 saw data theft of 6.4 million children causing a moral panic about the security and privacy risks of children’s personal data.
“The thing that parents need to know about smart toys is that they’re new terrain for parents and children, but also manufacturers,” said Sean Sullivan, F-Secure’s 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 children using IoT, mobile devices
Whether parents are concerned about IoT devices, mobile phones or other Internet safety issues, the best approach for protecting children is for parents to become involved in how their child learns to use devices or online services. Data from a recent F-Secure survey indicates that there’s a lot more space for parents to do this. Only 30 per cent of survey respondents said they check what their children are doing online or use parental controls more than once a week. While 38 per cent said they explain to their children how to use the Internet safely more than once a week.
According to F-Secure researcher Mikael Albrecht, this is problematic given how quickly technology (and how children use it) is evolving. “Parents have resources they can use to protect their children on traditional PCs, but mobile devices and the IoT are a different story. They do not recognise children as a user group with distinctive needs and this leaves parents with poor tools to manage their child’s online safety. So while you have things like age restrictions, they’re so basic that children 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 children and help them learn to use technology in a healthy, positive ways. There are a few practical ways parents can approach helping their child learn to use the Internet safely:
- Teach your children and let them teach you – “The world children 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 the children are facing and children 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 children 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 child’s full name. If you’re being asked to disclose exact birthdates, full names or other things about your child you’d rather keep private, move on to a better product.”
- Be present, but not overbearing – Children need some degree of privacy, especially as they grow older. “I think it’s okay for parents to use technical solutions to keep an eye on what children are doing online, but parents should be open about this and prepared to ease off as children get older,” said Albrecht. “Chances are children will figure out these technical controls anyway, so trying to hide it is likely to backfire and cause the child to see their parents as big brother type figures.”