Tuesday February 9th is Safer Internet Day this year. An excellent time to sit down and reflect about what kind of Internet we offer to our kids. And what kind of electronic environment they will inherit from us.
I have to be blunt here. Our children love their smartphones and the net. They have access to a lot of stuff that interest them. And it’s their new cool way to be in contact with each other. But the net is not designed for them and even younger children are getting connected smartphones. Technology does not support parents properly and they are often left with very poor visibility into what their kids are doing on-line. This manifests itself as a wide range of problems, from addiction to cyber bullying and grooming. The situation is not healthy!
There are several factors that contribute to this huge problem:
- The future’s main connectivity devices, the handhelds, are not suitable for kids. Rudimentary features that help protect children are starting to appear, but the development is too slow.
- Social media turns a blind eye to children’s and parents’ needs. Most services only offer one single user experience for both children and adults, and do not recognize parent-child relationships.
- Legislation and controlling authorities are national while Internet is global. We will not achieve much without a globally harmonized framework that both device manufacturers and service providers adhere to.
Let’s take a closer look at these three issues.
Mobile devices based on iOS and Android have made significant security advances compared to our old-school desktop computers. The sandboxed app model, where applications only have limited permissions in the system, is good at keeping malware at bay. The downside is however that you can’t make traditional anti-malware products for these environments. These products used to carry an overall responsibility for what happens in the system and monitor activity at many levels. The new model helps fight malware, but there’s a wide range of other threats and unsuitable content that can’t be fought efficiently anymore.
We at F-Secure have a lot of technology and knowledge that can keep devices safe. It’s frustrating that we can’t deploy that technology efficiently in the devices our kids love to use. We can make things like a safe browser that filters out unwanted content, but we can’t filter what the kids are accessing through other apps. And forcing the kids to use our safe browser exclusively requires tricky configuration. Device manufacturers should recognize the need for parental control at the mobile devices. They should provide functionality that enable us to enforce a managed and safe experience for the kids across all apps.
Privacy is an issue of paramount importance in social media. Most platforms have implemented good tools enabling users to manage their privacy. This is great, but it has a downside just like the app model in mobile operating systems. Kids can sign up in social media and enjoy the same privacy protection as adults. Also against their parents.
What we need is a special kind of child account that must be tied to one or more adult accounts. The adults would have some level of visibility into what the kid is doing. But full visibility is probably not the right way to implement this. Remember that children also have a certain right to privacy. A good start would be to show whom the kid is communicating with and how often. But without showing the message contents. That would already enable the parents to spot cyberbullying and grooming patterns in an early phase.
But what if the kids sign up as adults with a false year of birth? There’s currently no reliable way to stop that without implementing strong identity checks for new users. And that is principally unfeasible. Device control could be the answer. If parents can lock the social media accounts used on the device, then they could at the same time ensure that the kid really is using a child account that is connected to the parents.
The ideas presented here are all significant changes. The device manufacturers and social media companies may have limited motivation to drive them as they aren’t linked to their business models. It is therefore very important that there is an external, centralized driving force. The authorities. And that this force is globally harmonized. This is where it becomes really challenging. Many of the problems we face on Internet today are somehow related to the lack of global harmonization. This area is no exception.
The tools we are left with today are pretty much talking to the kids, setting clear rules and threatening to take away the smartphone. Some of the problems can no doubt be solved this way. But there is still the risk that destructive on-line scenarios can develop for too long before the parents notice. So status quo is really not an acceptable state.
I also really hope that parents don’t get scared and solve the problem by not buying the kids a smartphone at all. This is even worse than the apparent dangers posed by an uncontrolled net. The ability to use smart devices and social media will be a fundamental skill in the future society. They deserve to start practicing for that early. And mobile devices are also becoming tools that tie the group together. A kid without a smartphone is soon an outsider. So the no smartphone strategy is not really an alternative anymore.
Yes, this is an epic issue. It’s clear that we can’t solve it overnight. But we must start working towards these goals ASAP. Mobile devices and Internet will be a cornerstone in tomorrow’s society. In our children’s society. We owe them a net that is better suited for the little ones. We will not achieve this during our kids’ childhood. But we must start working now to make this reality for our grandchildren.