For better or for worse, smartphones are part of the childhood experience.
They’re the default means of communication, and entertainment for millions, and there’s a growing drive for them to be integrated into the education system. Some U.K. schools have a Bring Your Own Device policy starting as early as year one (age five).
It’s expected that elementary schoolchildren will have access to a tool which can communicate instantly with any other individual on the planet. And because of this, they can access almost the entirety of human knowledge amassed over the millennia since mankind first scratched a fertility symbol onto the damp wall of a cave.
As they grow up, a child’s smartphone becomes the central hub of their life. They communicate with their friends, they play games, take photographs, watch, make and upload videos – and it’s tied irrevocably to their online accounts and their real life identity.
But is it possible to keep your child safe and protected using a smartphone?
What You Should Be Afraid of
With a smartphone, your child is linked to the whole wide world and everyone in it. There are a lot of people out there, and not everybody online is a good actor with other people’s best interests at heart.
As I see it, there are a number of potential threats to a child’s online wellbeing that a parent needs to worry about. These fall broadly under four headings. How much you need to worry about these and what you can do about them depends on how old your child is.
Inappropriate Content Issues
On the internet, everyone has a voice. Whether it’s on a large social media platform such as Facebook or Twitter; video platforms like YouTube, PeerTube or Bitchute; private chat servers like IRC or Discord, and in secure messaging services such as Whatsapp or Signal, anything goes.
With a smartphone that has an internet connection, your child can access it all. Anything anyone has to say, and anything they want to show.
Sadly, not everything is edifying content intended to entertain, enlighten and educate.
It’s easy for a child to stumble into an adult discussion – about TV characters, politics, sex, etc. And it’s even easier to end up on an inappropriate site. That’s just the way the web works – and the way it was designed to work. Everything is linked to everything else.
Remember the “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game? It was a fun way to pass the time in the days before the internet, and it involved choosing an actor and then connecting them to another actor with whom they have appeared on screen, until eventually, players reach Kevin Bacon.
There are always fewer than six steps, and it’s even easier to hop from one place to another on a smartphone.
From the most popular YouTube “Baby Shark” video, it’s possible for your preschooler to hop to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with a single click.
As an experiment for the purposes of this article, I managed to surf from the “Baby Shark” video to an article on sexbots in two clicks.
In four clicks I was able to get to a sex chatroom/camgirl site (which was recruiting models).
This is only four links away from…
My (short) journey started via a link from the BabyShark video to the PinkFong Twitter page, which was, at the time, celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Clicking on the #Valentine hashtag brought me to here:
This is the social media account of the Flirt4Free camgirl site. From here, I was able to click through to the main site.
Bear in mind that I don’t have a Twitter account and didn’t need to sign into anything.
Remember, I didn’t type anything in to end up here. I didn’t use Google, and my starting point was one of the most popular toddler videos on Youtube.
This is just an example. A real example, and not an altogether unlikely one. The truth is that without typing anything in, your child could end up just about anywhere, looking at or reading just about anything.
What You Can Do About It
Using the dedicated YouTube app means that most of the onscreen links are to other, related Youtube videos. Finding links that will lead your child off-site is difficult, and is unlikely to happen by accident.
The Youtube Kids app is even more suited to smartphones for children, as it offers enhanced controls that govern what they can and can’t see from within the app.
In addition to the app’s preset filters, YouTube Kids allows parents to limit screen time, monitor which videos they’re viewing, block individual videos and flag unsuitable content.
If you’re worried about letting your younger child out onto the wider internet, where unsuitable content is abundant, it is possible to whitelist and blacklist certain sites.
Whitelisting means that you create a list of websites that you approve of them visiting, and they will only be able to visit the sites on that list.
Blacklisting means that most of the internet will be available to your child, but sites that are added to the blacklist will be blocked if they try to visit.
To install a browser that supports whitelisting or blacklisting of websites, search for whitelist browser on the Google Play Store or Apple’s iTunes.
Kids Safe Browser by Kiddoware offers both whitelisting and blacklisting, along with its core (paid-for) cloud-based web content filtering. Whitelist browser is simple, free, and does exactly what you would expect.
Last of all, you should talk to your child about their internet experience – what have they been watching, and have they seen anything that disturbs them?
The short version is that marketers and other private businesses want to know what your child is up to. They want to know who they are, what websites they visit, who their friends are and what they’re doing. They want to know your child’s interests, their hobbies and what they look like.
Some of this is fairly innocuous (although still massively invasive) and is used for marketing purposes. Things like making sure newly single women get adverts for ice cream and chocolate, while I always end up being spammed with ads for server hardware.
But the information gets sold elsewhere, too. Photos can also be scraped from sites such as Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and Google for use in AI facial recognition datasets, which are sold to law enforcement and anyone else who can pay to use them.
Data scrapers and tracking companies are not particularly well known for being either ethical entities or great respecters of privacy laws.
They’re unlikely to know or care about the age of your child – except as it relates to building an accurate advertising profile on them, which they will carry forwards for the rest of their lives.
Likewise, their smartphone selfies posted to Instagram or other platforms will enable AIs to recognize them from a snapshot as they grow into adulthood.
What You Can Do About It
Hide your child’s tracks
Ideally, your child will leave as little trace online as is humanly possible. There should be nothing to allow tracking companies to connect the dots across activities from their smartphone.
If it’s a signed-in Android device running the standard Google Chrome browser, Google will always know where your child is. Try Firefox or another free and open source browser.
Add-ons and extensions can be added to completely block traffic to known tracking and advertising companies. Other extensions will create such a confusing picture of what your child gets up to online that any resulting profile will be useless.
Privacy badger (available as an extension on Firefox for Android) does not block first party trackers, such as the ones used by this site for analytics purposes. It’s only once trackers start stalking you to a different site (which mine never would) that Privacy badger takes action – blocking them from sending information back to their home base.
Privacy Possum takes a different approach by allowing tracking companies to stalk your child all they want – but they’ll never ever be able to get an accurate idea of who it is they’re actually following, as the extension sends distorting and deliberately contradictory information.
Disguising photos so they can’t be identified by AI is more difficult, although work is ongoing in that direction.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have created an application called Fawkes, which subtly alters your child’s selfies in a way which means that your child can be recognized by her friends and relatives, but which means that machines will never be able to identify her from a genuine image.
Before and after the Fawkes treatment
Although it does work well, the app is still in its infancy and as yet, there are no mobile apps – meaning your child will need to run their pics through the main household computer before upload.
Follow Fawkes progress here.
Physical Safety Issues
Let’s draw back from the virtual for a second and talk about the real world. Abstract fears of some future identity-related drama are one thing, but having someone locate your child in the real world is frightening on an entirely different level.
It goes without saying that you should thoroughly brief your child of the dangers of talking to strangers online – and of giving away any personally identifying information to people they do not know in the real world.
The first thing an attacker will want to do is to establish real-world common ground. A stranger isn’t really a stranger if they claim to go to the same school, or one nearby. A child is more likely to give information to – and even arrange a meeting with – someone with whom they can establish a geographic and cultural bond.
But first, they need to find out where your child is physically located.
Here’s a two-step experiment for you.
- Google what is my IP. You should be returned four sets of numbers in a format similar to this: 22.214.171.124. This is your IP address. Copy it.
- Visit censys.io/ipv4, then paste your IP address into the search box and hit search.
See the map? Zoom in. How close is the marker to your actual house? To your child’s school? To the public parks where they play?
If an attacker finds out the town where you live, it’s easy to start up a new conversation even if your child hasn’t given any information away.
“I’m Jennifer, I’m transferring to [your child’s school] in May. It sucks that I’m not going to know anyone.”
Almost every website your child visits will have a record of their IP address, even if the site owners are not using any kind of analytics. It will be there in the access logs, along with their device, operating system and exactly what page your child landed on.
All an attacker needs to do is share a link to one of their own sites.
It’s tempting to think that setting up a website to share a single link is difficult or expensive. It’s not. A slightly technical person can have one up and functional in under 10 minutes, running on their own computer, and at a total cost of zero dollars.
“Do you want to see my artwork?”
Clicking on a single link can give an unscrupulous actor a wealth of information – and there’s not a whole lot that you or your child can do about it.
“I can do a picture of you if you’d like. I can give it to you in person at [the nearest park to your house].”
What You Can Do About It
Talking to your child about online safety and disclosing information is only part of the solution. And it’s hard to resist someone who (supposedly) has so much in common with their target, who knows the local landmarks and schools, and has built up a more complete profile thanks to the knowledge afforded them by your child’s IP address.
IP addresses are assigned by your Internet Service Provider and rotate on a semi-regular basis. In most cases, your IP address will point to your local exchange, which is usually within a few miles of your house. Every interaction you have online is tagged with your IP.
You need to disguise your IP address, and there is really only one way of doing that: a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
With a VPN, all network traffic is routed through servers in a different part of the country, or in a different country altogether. You can choose, and the IP address will show your child as being physically in a completely different place – far away from your real home.
The IP address in the screenshot in the previous section isn’t mine. Yes, it was me visiting the website (and yes, it’s one of my access logs), but my traffic passed through a VPN, and if anyone tries to find me using that IP address, it will appear that I’m in Kyiv, Ukraine, with stunning views over the Dnipro river.
I’m not in Kyiv, though, so it would be useless trying to start a conversation based on opinions of new sculptures in the local park.
Finding talking points is easy once you have someone’s whereabouts
VPNs can hide your child’s IP address when they are in the house or outside. Most providers offer apps for both Android and iOS, so masking your child’s actual location is as simple as installing the app and selecting a server location.
NordVPN is my choice for a VPN in this situation, as it boasts 5,500+ servers in 59 countries around the world. It’s very fast and comes with excellent security and privacy protections. Easy-to-use apps are available for iOS and Android, as well as other platforms.
Be aware, though, that by providing your child with a secure VPN connection, you will be helping them to subvert any other network security measures you have in place, and won’t be able to prevent them from watching Netflix at school!
A child’s teenage years are principally for experimentation and carving their own identity – separate from their childhood persona and separate from their parents’.
They’ll experiment with their self-image and the way they think – causing their parents no end of worry as they careen through an adolescent obstacle course that will probably involve smoking, sex and motorcycles – along with the works of both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand.
This is normal. You did it, your parents did it, and their parents did it. Normal teenage things, and they’ll probably grow out of the more egregious aspects before they hit true adulthood.
But sometimes they’ll find an ideology or a cause they’re willing to fight and die for – and one from which there is no return.
They had been radicalized online and provided with the help they needed to make it halfway across the world and into a war.
Shamima Begum was 15 years old when she, along with two other girls from Bethnal Green, U.K., made their way to Syria. She had been communicating with extremists through online chatrooms, and was groomed through a dating website called “Jihad Matchmaker.” Quickly married to a Jihadist from the Netherlands, she had three children – who all died in infancy.
This isn’t an isolated case, and it isn’t a horror novel. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tales just like it, because young adults are suckers for a cause.
What You Can Do About It
Teenagers can flirt with extreme ideology without ever tipping over the edge, and in most cases will pull back and become “normal” adults.
The key here is to know what they’re watching on the smartphones, and the best way to do this is to ask them, and to discuss things rationally with them like the young adult they are.
That’s not to say that discreet monitoring is impossible. As long as they’re in your house and connected to your WiFi network, it is possible to use a tool such as PiHole (which was designed to block advertisements) as a way of monitoring which websites your teen is visiting.
Pihole won’t give you granular detail of which pages your teen is visiting, but it should be easy enough to spot if they’re spending an inordinate amount of time on “Jihad Matchmaker.”
Pihole was designed to run on the fabulous Raspberry Pi and will work happily on any Linux-based system. Installation instructions for Windows 10 are here.
It is also possible to install apps on your child’s smartphone which will log exactly what they’re doing, who they’re talking to, and where they are. They will report back to you through a web interface.
Most of these apps will render themselves invisible and difficult to remove on your child’s system. An example would be Spyine. Make no mistake – this is spyware, and you should think long and hard before deploying it.
Using monitoring tools with an older teenager can backfire badly, and may teach them more about network security and covering their tracks. It will also prevent them from trusting you in the future, and from being the person they come to for advice and help when the situation starts to look a little scary.
Talk to your kids.
Smartphones are here to stay whether you like it or not, and from the moment your child first connects to the wider world, they’re exposed to risks, including inappropriate content, privacy violations, radicalization, and even potential threats to their physical safety.
You can’t protect them from everything, but there are a few simple steps you can take to keep the risks as low as possible.
- Install and use dedicated apps that prevent them from leaving video sites
- Use whitelist / blacklist browsers
- Consider a VPN to help mask your child’s location
- Use Pihole to keep an eye on your domestic network traffic
In giving your child a smartphone, you’re helping them to adapt and live in the modern online world. The tips I’ve listed here should make that online world a safer place for them.