The digital world isn’t something your kids choose to be a part of; it’s thrust upon them. They need it to socialize, complete school assignments, and simply exist in the modern world. And while social media and the Internet offer opportunities to expose your kid to the world they also, well, expose your kid to the world. So, how do you ensure they’re healthy and safe in their digital lives? Ask some hackers-turned-dads what they do.
That’s why these seven pro-tips for managing your kid’s tech don’t just come not just from fellow dads, but also from industry insiders who have walked the talk with gadgets — and children — of their own. As one-time hackers and online explorers themselves, they understand the allure, adventure, and education that unfettered Internet access can provide. But as parents, they also know the dangers that lurk in the corners of the world wide web. While none of the fathers interviewed claimed their methods would keep kids 100 percent safe online, they say they help enforce good habits — which is way more than half the battle.
Take Ownership of Your Devices
Despite being CEO of the research software company Qualtrics, former journeyman hacker Ryan Smith doesn’t let any of his five children (aged 1 to 9) own computers. “When it comes to their personal devices, we obviously have them, but none of them are our children’s,” he says. Specifically, the computers, which range from tablets to Chromebooks, belong to the parents, who loan them out. This is important because it eliminates the “MINE!” element, and fosters a sense of shared ownership among the family. Also, it empowers the parents to implement whatever rules they deem necessary for the devices, because they are, after all, theirs.
Give Your Gadgets a Bedroom
Because all computers “belong” to Smith and his wife, one simple rule they’ve been able to implement about their family’s gear is that none of it is allowed to venture inside the children’s bedrooms. Researchers have found that allowing computers in kids’ bedrooms disrupts sleep, which is vital to healthy development. But beyond the 40-wink-factor, having a tablet or smartphone on the nightstand can help cyberbullying flourish, because online chatting with friends will be the last thing little ones see before they go to sleep, and the first thing they encounter upon waking.
To curb this behavior, instead of letting devices wander off at night, Smith makes a central repository where they should go each evening before bedtime. “We have one place in the house where they all go and they charge, and that’s where they all sleep,” says Smith.
Lock Down Your iOS device with Guided Access
iPhones were the most popular smartphone of 2016 and command just short of 50 percent market share, so there’s a pretty good chance that your little one either has access to one (and it’s probably yours). There is an easy way to use your Apple device as a digital pacifier while keeping all of your embedded information safe — it’s called Guided Access. Located in the Settings app under General, and then Accessibility, Guided Access keeps your iPhone or iPad locked into a single app so curious fingers can’t go flipping through your personal information.
Activated by a triple-click of the home button, this feature is very easy to enable when handing your device over to a temper tantrumming toddler. And with the ability to disable the hardware buttons (that includes the volume rocker, thank goodness) and set time limits (so the iPad turns off on its own, which means you don’t have to be the bad guy), this little lifesaver cannot be shut off unless the user enters a pin code. Does your mini-me know your lock screen code? Fear not, Guided Access also lets you use a different one, just in case.
Samsung owner? Enable Kids Mode
If you don’t have an iPhone, there’s a very good chance you’ve got smartphone from their arch-rival, Samsung. To keep his kids from poking into areas they should avoid, Josh McCormack, international website coordinator for Insight for Living, uses Samsung’s Kids Mode to keep his children locked in when they’re getting screen time. With three kids aged 4, 8, and 13 years old, the McCormacks use this setting to give the younger users profiles that give them different access than their big sister — or they themselves — get. “It’s like a walled garden,” says McCormack. “You can put whatever apps you want in that, and they need a password to get out of it.”
Embrace the Dumb Phone
For kids, getting a cell phone is a rite of passage and with a 13-year-old girl, McCormack is staring down that reality. But to keep his daughter’s internet searches in check, McCormack is considering getting her a dumb phone — something that can just text and talk, nothing else. “It’s not easy to find non-smartphones these days,” he says. But it’s a market gap that phone makers have discovered as well. Nokia has recently released a modern version of its iconic 3310 candy bar phone, and while it doesn’t support apps, it does have a full-color version of the game Snake.
Smith’s 9-year-old is even feeling the phone fever, but he has found a workaround that scratches the itch for now: wrist-worn wearables that can also make phone calls. Tinitell makes a not-so-smart watch for kids that serves as a mobile phone and GPS tracker that will keep your kids safe — and offline.
Ramp Up Your Router’s Protection
But eventually your kids are going to need the internet, so be prepared for when they do. Ori Eisen, CEO of Trusona, an online security company that’s hell bent on eliminating passwords, suggests using the home’s Wi-Fi router to limit what their kids can access over the web.
“A lot of parents don’t realize that every Wi-Fi router comes with a firewall built inside,” he says. “If you just read the manual beyond the five steps to set it up, you can learn about a few things you can limit, like downloads, what you can buy from the App Store, and I don’t let my kids go to specific websites that aren’t monitored.”
The reason setting up firewall-level protection helps is because kids will always find a way to break into places where they shouldn’t be. If they don’t want to get caught, they’ll use private browsing modes, and if you disable that feature from their web browser, they’ll just download another. Firewalls block the bad content from coming into your house whatsoever.
Keep ‘Em Guessing
Eisen is sympathetic and even encouraging to his kids’ curiosity. In fact, he even challenges them to guess the Wi-Fi password, promising them that if they do crack the code — to which he gives hints — he will let them use the internet uninterrupted for an entire day. “Half of me wants them to be safe, but the other half of me wants them to be adventurous and learn how to hack away,” he says. “If you only do what you’re told, you’ll never break the boundaries.”