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Digital parenting: the challenges of keeping kids secure during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work and study from home as never before as offices and schools shut down in order to limit the spread of the virus. Combine the new ways of operating this has foisted upon us with the stresses associated with the pandemic itself and it’s perhaps no surprise that cybercrime has boomed in 2020. 

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the tremendous rise in sextortion, of which 46% was targeted at minors.

“This is important research, as it demonstrates the huge changes in our digital behavior that lockdown has caused,” Professor Robert Winston, medical doctor, scientist, professor, and TV presenter of BBC documentary ‘Child of our Time’, told me recently. “Families have faced significant challenges: the constraints that come with working from home; the pressure on access to digital devices; and above all, concerns over kids’ safety and mental wellbeing as they spend more time online.”

A recent study from NortonLifeLock underlined the challenges parents have faced during the pandemic as they’ve battled with working from home, schooling their children, and trying to maintain a safe and functioning household. 

The challenge was underlined by the finding that nearly half of parents had to buy a new device for their child during lockdown at a time when household finances were extremely uncertain. 

Indeed, around a third of parents revealed that their budget did not extend to buying such a device, which created an inevitable divide in terms of access to education during the lockdown.

“The risks and impact of digital dependency during lockdown are exacerbated for disadvantaged families,” commented Professor Winston. “Hard-pressed parents may have less money to spend on devices for their children for home-schooling, and on protection. They’re also likely to have less time to supervise their kids’ online behavior.”

Tough decisions

This underlines the difficult choices many parents had to make, with approximately half of working parents rearranging work to allow them to look after their child, with many having to work late into the evening to catch up. From a security perspective, over a third of parents revealed they were sharing their work device with their children, despite official policies from their employer prohibiting them from doing so.

This was especially dangerous as for many parents, the digital device acted as a kind of babysitter, with nearly half of them revealing that they were largely unable to control their child’s use of their device or indeed even know what their child was doing online. This is particularly worrying as not only does this present a considerable threat to the children themselves, but with hackers increasingly targeting the devices of key officials in governments, corporations, and research agencies, the lending of devices to unsuspecting and digitally unarmed children could present an easy way in for hackers looking to compromise devices and access systems.

Agreeing on house rules

We have already seen a pilot project launched in Germany to teach children not only how to use various digital tools and devices but also how to stay safe while they're doing so. The project, from the European Commission, is necessary because many youngsters have a lack of awareness around the threats they face or how those threats can be tackled.

“This is why agreeing on ‘house rules’ is a helpful first step that allows parents to establish healthy screen time habits that kids would benefit from as they grow up using technology for both learning and fun,” said Steve Wilson, UK & Ireland Director at NortonLifeLock. “However, it’s important that rules around device use are set as part of a broader dialogue about online safety, not just as a measure that aims to limit children’s screen time.”

Digital issues were pervasive across British households, with 73% of parents expressing concern about their child’s safety online, and 74% having experienced some sort of issue in the past. For instance, 18% of children had downloaded a virus, 14% had shared family credit cards online, 16% had an account hacked, and 19% had responded to a phishing email.

To help overcome these difficulties, the report outlines a number of steps parents can take to ensure their children are safe online, including:

  1. Establish clear house rules, including limits on screen time and on the kind of content children can access through their devices.
  2. Encourage browsing in communal areas, as doing so will help to put your mind at rest that children aren’t doing things they would like to hide from you. Similarly, browsing in a communal area makes it easier to spot when children are becoming distressed or if they’re confused in any way.
  3. Drum into them that no question is a stupid question, as it’s important to have an open dialog about digital hygiene and the various risks children might encounter as they explore online.
  4. Think before they click, as this is a surefire way of attracting malware or accessing pages they may not wish to. Pausing to think about the safety and wisdom of an action is a good habit to get into.
  5. Discuss the risks of sharing private information, which is especially important in an era in which sharing everything is almost the default. This not only includes personal photos, but also information that can make one vulnerable to social engineering.
  6. Disable pre-filled payment details, so as to stop purchases being made inadvertently, especially for services that may land both parent and child in trouble.
  7. Be a good role model, as your children will inevitably look to you for support and guidance in forming their own internet habits.

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