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Being Mobile: Best Practices for Keeping your Child Safe on Mobile Technology

Created: 10 Oct 2013
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October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, and Symantec is publishing a series of posts on how we're meeting Our Shared Responsibility to secure the Internet. Today we hear from Norton Internet Safety Advocate Marian Merritt, on best practices for your children's use of mobile technology.

My friend’s two year old woke up today and bellowed from her crib, “I want my iPad!” Even within your family, you may find your youngest child started using technology with far greater ease than your oldest child. Some of this can be attributed to the popularity and ease of use for touchscreen devices and smartphones. And your children, like you, are spending more and more time on mobile devices. Just because you spend so much time on your smartphone doesn’t necessarily mean you are addicted but we’re certainly beginning to form a dependency that can be a concern. The new Norton report shows we’re sleeping with our phone next to the bed, checking our social networks within minutes of waking up, bringing them to the dinner table and annoying our friends and family with bad mobile habits.


For any parent, your first concern has to be the safety of your child when using these devices. And within that topic, there are really three priorities:

  1. Keeping your child safe from strangers and away from adult and violent material;
  2. Keeping the device clean from malware and the data secured and private; and
  3. Keeping the device safe from physical damage.

So How Do You Achieve These?

Most kids love watching videos on smartphones and tablets. Popular video sharing sites can offer a wide range of age appropriate material and you can restrict your child’s viewing by selecting pre-approved channels or setting up playlists, depending on your device and your apps. At minimum, you can select the settings to limit the mature content in the video service. What about the comments and links in the videos or suggested similar content in the margins? It can be hard to keep your child away from content you wouldn’t approve or that might upset your child. Talk with your child about how to use the video service and pay attention to the browser history.

Advertising appears in so many more places now. There are ads at the beginning of videos, within the frame in a little window, on the margins of webpages, and displayed within apps. Make sure you’re showing your children how to know what is advertising and how to avoid or click it off. Talk about scams and fake contests that might show up in advertising or other links. And when selecting apps for your mobile phone or tablet, consider paying a few dollars for an ad-free version to reduce the commercial content your child is exposed to.

Browsing websites is also very important to users of mobile devices and your children will use the browser software. You can check their website history but they can also check yours. Make sure a shared device doesn’t cause children to see content they aren’t old enough for, simply because someone opened a webpage used by an adult or clicked the back arrow to see a previous page.

With mobile devices, use the security settings built into the device to limit what your children can do. For example, turn off geo-location services so games and apps can’t physically link your device to a location. This is often necessary for targeted advertising but usually doesn’t harm the app. Of course, for mapping apps or anti-theft apps, geo-location is a must, so pay attention to whether you need those services and either toggle them off and on or leave on.

Limit in-app purchases and still be sure to talk about how apps, music, videos and games are paid for. You want to avoid a nasty surprise like a huge music bill or in-game purchases by a child who just thought they were playing when they clicked a link marked “buy”.

I like to set a screen lock password on all our devices. This keeps a stranger or even a friend from accessing content that might be private or using a fee-based account without permission.  Show your children how to set up a password and remind them that passwords should never be shared with friends. Ask if they can work with you to regularly update passwords on the device, especially if they ever “forget” the family rule and tell a friend their password. It can be surprising how easily another child can get that secret from your child, so try not to be angry and show your child how to re-set it.

The Norton Family Free Online Safety Program

All of this can be daunting and even annoying to any of us. For that reason, parents like you and a dedicated advisory board of experts put together Norton Family, a free online safety program you can use on computers and mobile devices to get some control over your child’s online activities. Popular options include a browser history that shows websites visited, videos viewed and search terms used. All the data is viewable from a website or a parent app you can put on your smartphone or tablet. You can even adjust rules and settings without being in front of the device. A premium version provides detailed reports and more advanced options. Both the free and the premium fee-based versions are available in more than 25 languages.

Earlier I mentioned you had three parenting priorities with smart phones and tablets. We’ve been discussing the safety of your child from inappropriate content and experiences. You can also install security software (including anti-theft) to keep your data private and secure. We’re seeing a rise in malicious activity designed to trick us via smaller screen devices, and we’ve even seen ransomware written for the smartphone.

And after you install security software on your device and set a passcode for the screen, spend a few dollars and get a good case for your device. Inevitably, someone will drop the phone or tablet and without a case on it, it’s likely to break.

Marian Merritt is Symantec's Norton Internet Safety Advocate.