Technology Safe: How to Protect Your Kids

Derek Fisher

Derek Fisher

We hold in our pocket the computing power that exceeds what we used to launch rockets into space several decades ago. As an engineer, I’ve seen the good uses of that technological power. I’ve seen technology used to save lives, grow wealth, and provide critical information. As a leader, instructor, and author in cybersecurity, I’ve also seen the impacts of the misuse of that technology. Denial of service attacks that bring down swarths of the internet, ransomware attacks that bankrupt small organizations and phishing campaigns that rob the unsuspecting of their money. Technology is a double-edged sword. 

This is put into stark view when we look at the way our children handle technology. Children today are often seen with their head down staring into their hand. They’re chatting, scrolling through feeds, watching videos and playing games. None of this is intrinsically bad or wrong. However, it makes them vulnerable to those who want to take advantage of that technology. In cybersecurity, it opens up what we call an attack surface. An attack surface is the opportunity for a malicious actor to take advantage of technology in order to threaten our data or ourselves.

Parents are often left wondering whether their children are really utilizing their technology in a way that doesn’t cause harm. With this in mind, I decided to write a children’s middle grade chapter book series on staying safe and secure online. The goal of the series was not to lecture children about the dangers of technology, but instead to present a setting where children can see themselves tackling some of the challenges around technology. This series is just as important to the young reader as it is to the parents. It gives parents scenarios to talk to their children about like cyberstalking, setting limits on screen time, setting up a device securely, and other concerns and solutions. 

Knowing the Risks

While the risks are different for a technology organization than for a personal smartphone or tablet, the fundamentals of protection are the same. Families can protect their data by reducing what they share online, and sharing only with groups and people that are known and trusted. Here are some tips.

Think Twice About What’s in Your Photos

The combination of a smartphone with a camera and a social media account allows us to capture and instantly share a moment with dozens, hundreds, thousands or even millions of people with a few taps of a screen. This is a powerful tool for keeping family and friends in touch with our reality. But this can be misused Consider the awesome vacation picture of your family thousands of miles from your home. What does that tell an attacker about you? For one, that you’re not home. What about a picture of you with sensitive information in the background? Maybe a bank statement on a table or a phone number on a post-it note. These may seem like small considerations, but not if an attacker is looking to gain useful information. 

Consider Social Media Influence

This is more important today for our children as technology is weaved into every aspect of their lives. They are often not considering the risks or impact that technology has. Think about the social media platforms in use today. They are used to share information and show the best parts of our lives. For example, most people will not post about the failures in their lives, or their embarrassing moments. Their posts are about running their fastest time, going to exotic places or buying a fancy outfit. Furthermore, these platforms allow for different filters and alterations to be made to images, further making them an unrealistic statement about reality. This has a huge impact on the mental and emotional integrity of the viewer. And studies show that this impact is more acute in young girls.

Outline Expectations

So, what can we do to help our children use technology safely? The first step is to outline clear expectations. Consider creating a technology contract with your child that sets ground rules for how they should use technology and the consequences of breaking the contract. Talk with your child about what good etiquette and healthy relationships look like online. Monitoring and spot checking your child’s device is not overreaching. If you pay the bill, the responsibility is with you. Lastly, we need to model the behavior we want to see in our children and stay consistent with the expectations. 

Technology brings a brand new world into our life and hands. As with any modern advancement, its usage must be balanced with safety and security in mind.

Derek Fisher has decades of experience in computer engineering, with the last 10 years in cybersecurity as a leader, speaker, author, and instructor at Temple University. His middle grade series, “Alicia Connected” helps kids safely navigate through the digital world.