If you’re buying gifts for children, you’ve probably noticed their wish lists have gone high tech. And even if the kids aren’t asking for them, adults are drawn to buying tech gifts for kids because they can be fun and educational and can keep kids occupied for more than three minutes.
However, some tech gifts for kids come with a big price — and it isn’t the one on your credit card bill. They can put your child and other members of your family at risk for cybercrime or an invasion of the child’s privacy. Because these gifts can connect to the internet, they are internet of things (IoT) devices that require the same type of cybersecurity protections as your other connected devices. If you plan to give the gift of tech this holiday season, you’ll want some tips for keeping kids safe online.
Security Considerations for the Top Children’s Tech Gifts
There are tech gifts for every age and any interest — for the child who just wants something to snuggle during playtime or for the teenager who wants to compete in Fortnite competitions. But before you put the item in your shopping cart, it’s important to know the types of cyber and privacy risks you’ll have to address.
It seems like even the youngest child knows how to use their parents’ smartphones and tablets, and many parents see these gifts, along with laptops, as essential for their school-aged children. Smart watches and fitness trackers specially geared for users under 13 are also becoming increasingly popular. Risks here include malware, phishing, social engineering, free apps that require payment for additional options, cyberbullying in games and on social media apps, location tracking and a lack of encryption for shared and stored data.
Old Favorites With a High-Tech Twist
Some of your favorite toys, such as building blocks, microscopes, board game viewers with 3D images, and drawing and etching pads, now have high-tech elements. Many of these toys can communicate with an app on a smartphone or tablet or add an element of augmented or virtual reality. However, anything that connects to another device or the internet is vulnerable to hacking, malware and social engineering-based attacks.
Cuddly Stuffed Animals and Toddler Toys
Talking toys aren’t new, but tech-infused stuffed toys can be companions and playmates for children, repeat what they say and even allow parents to communicate with their child. Toddlers and preschoolers also love toys that interact with them, play music or mimic adult gadgets. Unfortunately, shared information is often stored in the cloud without encryption, and even devices protected with passwords may not encrypt those passwords. These toys have raised red flags in the past after they were hacked and millions of records were compromised.
Next-Generation Toys and Gadgets
Kids want drones, robots, virtual reality headsets for gaming and even virtual assistants for their bedrooms, and manufacturers are paying attention. They have now turned to developing these grown-up devices for pre-teens. Tech toys are supposed to come with parent-enabled filters or have kid-friendly controls, but the risks here are that data is often unencrypted on these devices, they often conduct high levels of data collection, and they may have the ability to track what your child is watching, listening to or doing. Certain features may be paired with location tracking too, and malware and hacking risks abound when entertainment comes in the form of an app.
Online Gaming Subscriptions
Fortnite, Minecraft, Dota, League of Legends — these are some of the most popular online games the child in your life is probably playing. Many of these games require a subscription to play and additional costs to add in-game tools, ventures and even social activities, but they’re tech gifts for kids that are easy to buy and that you know will be appreciated. There are also a lot of educational video game options for kids of all ages.
At the same time, games are a popular target for cybercriminals. Because many games are multiplayer and interactive, your child may talk to strangers who are trying to glean personal information from them. There are identity theft concerns, and certain in-game tools and accessories that are bought with real money can be stolen and sold on the black market. Naturally, online games are also subject to malware and data breaches.
What Are the Safest Tech Gifts for Kids?
Not all tech gifts for kids are a security nightmare — there are toys and options available that have security features.
Smartphones, Tablets and Computers
You can download parental control apps that can monitor social media behavior, block access to designated apps and websites and track calls, text messages and a device’s location. These apps give parents a view into their child’s online activities and behaviors.
Child-Centric Virtual Assistants
The bright candy colors of junior virtual assistants are perfect for a child’s bedroom, and parents don’t have to worry about what type of information their kids are looking for. Parents can set up controls on these devices, and they’re designed with special filters that can block obscenities in songs and tell age-appropriate stories. They are also configured so kids can’t ask them to make purchases. With these controls, parents can set up a device for an individual child’s age.
Tech Without the Internet Connection
There are a lot of options that offer state-of-the-art technology without ever connecting to the internet, and these are the gifts with the least cyber risk of all. For example, machines that work with a controller or encourage kids to develop their own code (instead of using an app) or toys that interact with specially designed devices that work only with those toys.
All this tech makes a lot of noise. Kids want privacy when they listen to music or videos without having to wear wired headphones. There are a variety of Bluetooth headphones available, from ear pods to padded, noise-cancelling models. Bluetooth has some security concerns, but low-range transmissions present the least amount of cyber risk.
Tips for Keeping Kids Safe Online
No matter what tech gift you decide to give, the ultimate goal of these security-first gifts is to protect the child receiving them. To that end, here are some tips for keeping kids safe online:
- Set up parental controls on any internet-connected device.
- Monitor your child’s online play and set daily limits. This includes paying attention to their online gaming habits.
- Watch for anything that looks unusual, such as wonky connections, toys or devices following commands not previously programmed, or higher-than-usual data usage. These signs may indicate that the toy or device was hacked and should be immediately disconnected.
- Never use free or public Wi-Fi connections.
- Communicate with your child about how to practice safe behaviors online.
Your kids love high-tech gadgets — and you probably do too. Unfortunately, security continues to be an afterthought for most toys and gifts designed for kids. Your children aren’t immune to the security risks out there, so the more cyber-aware you are as a gift-giver, the safer the children in your life will be.