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On parenting in the digital era

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Parenting in the digital era is hard enough — but what about when every facility is tracking our whereabouts?

As parents, we do a thorough background check about our help, babysitter and even the schools in which we enrol the kids. But how well do we know about the technologies with which we surround ourselves? Your phone, your child’s tab that he/she uses to play games and your virtual Home Assistant?

Lately, these dangers in the online space have transitioned into the real world, and as parents, we need to step in. After all, how would you or the child react to having a random stranger sitting at home all day with you? That’s just what we are doing today, in this gadget-crazy world. As a mom to a 5-year-old, I often ask myself how safe my child is in today’s cyber-world.

More eyes than necessary

Ever since Facebook rolled out their Messenger Kids, it has been getting a lot of flak from cyber pundits, just like the Snap Map feature that is freaking out parents about their kids’ safety. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a tough concept to explain to kids, about how every small physical device can connect to the internet and identify itself to similar devices. How do I do it?

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From Amazon’s Echo to Google Home, AI-enabled home assistants rule the roost today. Nikita Sharma, a stay-at-home mom of a 2-year-old, states how these devices excite the kids and counts for fun family time, playing games together or listening to popular nursery rhymes.

“If it means less screen-time and interactive learning for my child, I am all for it!”

On one side, you wish this is the assistant you need to make your lives simpler, but ever wondered what threats they pose to your children? Perhaps we should, like Mark Zuckerberg, start taping our laptop and tablet’s camera and microphone. An incident in Portland in the USA earlier this year described how Alexa recorded a private conversation of a couple and sent it to a contact in their list without their permission. They were understandably petrified and vowed never to plug in such devices in their home again.

The makers are still clueless about how this happened.

Easy answers, but the learning has been found wanting

Rajee Deepak, a techie mom of two kids, aged 11 and 9, says she lets them use the smartphone and virtual assistant Bixby, but with restrictions. “I am okay with them using it for the weather forecast, score or to play songs”. But just like all millennial moms, Rajee is worried if this will make the next-gen kids over-dependent on gadgets and virtual assistants.

Studies such as ‘Robovie, you’ll have to go into the closet now: Children’s social and moral relationships with a humanoid robot’ by Shen Solace et al, state how these virtual ‘friends’ substitute your child’s real friends and why that’s not good. For those unfamiliar, Robovie developed by Vstone, is an adorable robot which can double as your kid’s best friend; crying, laughing and walking, all included. The act of searching for answers and learning in the process is lost when all you have to say is ‘Okay Google, tell me the spelling of photosynthesis’. This begs the question of whether or not a child will actually learn something tangible without relying on technology.

Don’t get fooled by those privacy settings or the voice-recognition software. In mid-December, Rocco, a talking parrot, ordered itself some delicious snacks for Christmas through Alexa in Oxfordshire, when his owner wasn’t around and the Internet is having a hearty laugh! But it’s technology that’s having the final laugh in this cyber dilemma.

The Drop-In feature in Amazon Echo is eavesdropping in a tech-guise! Agreed, it does help a new parent or when you need to check on the elders in your family, but the privacy risks and the complicated security issues outweigh the benefits it offers, leaving the customer confused.

There’s also news of how Alexa has overheard ‘Christmas shopping lists’ from everyday conversations and purchases are being made directly from the linked bank accounts — without one even actually placing the order. Isn’t that scary? Soon would a LEGO purchase worth ₹30,000 be delivered to my doorstep just because I had a conversation with my child about it?

Steps worth taking

Be it the smartphone, iPad or even the home assistants, take a minute (or maybe more) to go through the privacy settings and enable the parental controls and safe search options. Don’t ignore this step and click ‘I agree’ blindly. Act smart. Switch off the voice-purchasing option or at least set a PIN to make it secure. The safer route would be to disable microphones and video camera options in your child’s devices.

If you buy any of these virtual home assistants, go through their manuals and read about them thoroughly. Find out what are the ‘wake words’ for each device and ensure your conversations don’t include a lot of them, that can activate the device!

Opt in for a safe and recommended parental control app. There are many trusted names in the market, such as TeenSafe, Life360, Kaspersky Safe Kids, Qustodio, Net Nanny among others, that help in web content filtering, app blocking, time management and location tracking. Don’t feel guilty for using one — even celebrity chef Jamie Oliver uses it to keep an eye on his children.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 1:58:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/on-parenting-in-the-digital-era/article25878726.ece

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