How iFailed at Keeping my Kids Safe Online

iLet my kids talk to strangers online and iDidn’t even know iDid it.

We all teach our kids not to talk to strangers and many of us are fully aware of the dangers that are lurking on the Internet in chat rooms and stalking through social networks. Technology manufacturers and web developers alike know concerned parents are more hesitant to buy “connected” gadgets for their kids or allow them to go online. That’s why so many electronics these days come with nifty safety features like parental controls, restricted settings and safe browsers to help parents keep their kids safe while still allowing them to utilize technology.  If you think you’re one of the parents who, like me, trusted these “safety nets” and think your kids are safe, think again.

I’m a pseudo-nerd. I don’t write my own code and couldn’t hack my way out of a paper bag, but I know my way around electronics and I consider myself fairly tech-savvy. I felt confident in my ability to control my children’s access to online content, social networks and chat rooms when I purchased them iPods and Android tablets to use for homeschool purposes. I naively believed that all I had to worry about was their ability to roam around the Net via built in web browsers and the native YouTube apps which might contain inappropriate content. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I hope other parents will benefit by learning from my mistakes.

“You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.” –Oscar Wilde

My kids are extremely visual-spatial as a bi-product of their ADHD and Dyslexia, which is one of the main reasons we homeschool. There are hundreds upon hundreds of apps, programs, websites and games and other “multi-media” these days that offer incredibly rich and powerful educational content in the conceptual format my kids understand best. As an added bonus, a lot of these games and programs come with a built in reward system: unlocking “levels” and offering other progressive rewards for succeeding and mastering skills and information. That may not seem important, but ADHD kids and adults need more frequent “rewards” than other individuals in order to stay motivated and learn more effectively. It seemed like the perfect solution: my kids wanted iPods and tablets, electronic games and devices and I wanted them to love learning.

I reasoned that purchasing tablets for my kids would give them access to the online curriculum websites I had enrolled them in without being tied to a computer in the house. I felt more comfortable with them in the same room with me and it gave us the freedom to do school at their grandparent’s house, in the car, or wherever we happened to be at the time. I needed them to have a Wi-Fi connection and browser access but I also needed to be able to “whitelist” or allow all their school websites while blocking access to everything else.

iThought iDid everything right.

I purchased software and apps that let me set up safe browsing and restrict which apps/programs my kids could access. I restricted how much time they could spend online or on the computer and even used LogMeIn to remotely view their desktops and monitor what they were doing on the computer. I made them purchase their own iPods as an incentive to keep track of them and I bought an Android tablet for each child and set up parental controls and application locks on both devices. On their iPods I set up password to the restrictions settings and blocked access to YouTube, Safari Browser, Twitter, FaceTime, Ping, iTunes, multi-player games in Game Center, adding friends in Game Center, installing apps, in-app purchases and even the App Store itself. To give myself a further sense of false security, I disabled their ability to make changes to accounts and limited their access to content rated for all ages above 9+. All in all I was pretty impressed with the level of control I had on their Apple device. If you search the Internet on how to let your kids safely use an iPod Touch, you’ll probably agree I did everything they told me to do.

I put passwords on the tablets so each child had to ask an adult whenever they wanted to use the device and bought an “App Locker” app to allow me to pick and choose which games and applications the kids could use. Even better, the app locker let me override the blocked games with a PIN on an app-by-app basis so they could only play them after they had done their schoolwork. I also blocked their access to the Android Marketplace (now called Google Play) so they couldn’t browse or purchase apps without permission.

I reviewed each app or game I bought for them to make sure it was approved for their age level and, just to be on the safe side, I only bought apps approved for ages 4 and above. Naturally they begged for some games/apps that were purely for fun like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, which I allowed them to play on a limited basis as a “reward” for working on schoolwork or using the learning games/apps I had bought. Each time I purchased them a new “game” with an educational agenda I felt smugly triumphant that I had “tricked” them into learning while they were having fun. What I didn’t realize is that the companies that make the devices and games had tricked ME into believing I had protected my children from online predators, strangers and sexual content.

iWas wrong.

The first thing that bothered me is that I could not delete “Game Center” from the iPod Touch. I didn’t like the idea that my kids had access to games I hadn’t reviewed or approved, even though I was able to prevent them from playing multi-player games and adding “friends” I was still unhappy that I couldn’t block it entirely. Not long afterwards my son, who was 7 years old at the time, found a loophole in the app locker software on the Android tablet. It allowed him to access the Marketplace through a promotional link on the game Connect’Em that advertised additional games by developer MagnaMobile. He had installed 2 more games on his tablet before I caught on to what was happening.

I wrote a disgruntled review on the Marketplace and uninstalled the first of many security apps. I carefully selected a new app locker, testing Connect’Em to make sure the new program didn’t contain the same flaw before handing the devices back to my kids. Within less than a week my son discovered if he repeatedly clicked MagnaMobile’s internal link to more games on the Marketplace, then closed the resulting pop-up window asking for a PIN, my newly installed “security” software would fatally crash and fail to restart itself. Not only could he access the Marketplace, he had free reign of every app on the tablet, including YouTube and the native browser which cannot be uninstalled or blocked in the internal Android settings.

iFind this extremely frustrating

As much as I loved the strategic and problem-solving principles in Connect’Em, there was no paid version without internal ads or links for more of their games forcing me to uninstall it and the fatally flawed security app. I wrote more reviews and installed more security software, this time choosing an app that controlled the native Android security lock screen and PIN, which so far had proved to be the only reliable security feature my 7-year-old couldn’t “hack.” That app lasted only as long as it took him to discover clicking the power button once and making the tablet “sleep” would override the entire app when he woke it up. Not only were the restrictions gone, the app failed entirely and wouldn’t launch the screen lock upon wake up either. He had thereby gained full access to the settings menu where he’d been able to uninstall the security app entirely. I concurred with his decision to do so and did not reinstall it, not even to write a scathing review on the Marketplace.

After reaching my wits end, I spent an extensive amount of time online searching for a solution, I eventually installed Tasker, an app that gave me root access to the Android operating system and allowed me to set up my own custom restrictions using Android’s native lock screen.  My research indicated that Tasker was very flexible and secure, requiring a separate password in order to access Tasker itself and even preventing uninstallation from the settings menu. iTested every scenario iCould possibly think of to make sure there were no glitches and iFelt like iFinally have the situation under control.

iM not as smart as iThink iAm

McGyver Junior was extremely disappointed that Tasker foiled his persistent attempts to circumvent the security measures I had created. That is, once he’d finished serving his mandatory 2 week sentence of “no electronics” as punishment for violating Mommy’s statutes on tablet usage and was allowed to use one again. I also successfully located, and followed, online instructions for setting up “tasks” to limit the amount time he could use an individual app. When the designated time limit was reached, the impenetrable security screen popped up requiring an adult to enter the password in order for him to continue using the app. He was simultaneously frustrated by his failure to bypass Tasker and impressed that I’d found something that actually worked, “Mom, how did you DO that?” I smiled sweetly at him and gave my standard reply to that question, “Mommy’s a genius.”

The self-satisfied grin was wiped off my face a short time later when he brought me his Motorola Xoom and confessed when he’d let the battery die on the tablet and then rebooted it, Tasker had not restarted. Furthermore, it had crashed so completely that he had been able to uninstall it from the tablet and had purchased $50 worth of apps on the Marketplace. Epic. Security. Fail.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” -Einstein

Many of you may be questioning why my son repeatedly defied my rules about staying out of the Marketplace and not going online without permission in the first place. You may also be wondering why he continued to be given the tablet back time after time. The real solution, you point out, is to address the obvious behavioral issues and lay down the law with my out-of-control child. iAgree that appears to be the answer on the surface and iWish it were that simple. iSwear that iAm not a bad parent nor am iMore lenient than most people. Humor me for a moment when I ask whether the average 1st grader would be unable to stop themselves from running to their parent and enthusiastically explaining exactly how they succeeded at breaking the rules.

iFind something that actually works

Not all ADHD children are created equal. In fact, none of them are. Consider that both Einstein and Edison are thought to have had ADHD and Dyslexia and take a moment to reflect on the fact Edison made over 1000 attempts at inventing the light bulb before finding a solution that worked. Perhaps doing so will give you a small glimpse into the mind of an extremely bright child who’s primary need is for others to understand the challenges he faces in life, how challenging it can be to do exactly that and, most importantly, how important it is for him to BE challenged with fascinating “problems” to solve. His brain frequently sees restrictions and limitations as “problems” to be solved in order to obtain a desirable goal. I must confess there was a part of me that was proud of him for being so persistent and creative.

The other part of me realized I was spending more time and energy on this battle of the wits with my son than I was on homeschooling him and I solved the problem permanently: my son’s Xoom tablet now belongs to Mommy. Lastly, at some point during the “battle of the wits” I found out my favorite Android app, Apparatus, had a “sandbox” of sorts where users could create their own “levels” and post them online for other sandbox members to see, try out, comment on and send messages to each other. After I recovered from the horror of learning both of my children had created profiles and were sending/receiving messages to perfect strangers online, I disabled the Wi-fi on both the tablets.

iLet my guard down

Through all of this, I had very little issue with my daughter who is 2 years older than MacGyver Junior. She does not have the same driving passion to solve “problems” and is instead motivated by a deep need to socialize with other kids, especially those slightly older than her whom she naturally looks up to and wants to impress. There were a few incidents, such as getting on YouTube and setting up a Facebook account or talking to strangers via an Xbox game, when spending the night with friends and relatives whose parents allow them more freedom online than I would.

I felt comparatively comfortable letting both of my kids continue using their iPod Touch devices with the Wi-fi enabled so they could receive updates and send messages to myself, their older brother and my husband, who frequently works out of town. Educational games such as Stack the States, Stack the Countries and Presidents vs. Aliens had me bragging about how my kids were learning more about Geography and the US Presidents than most adults these days know. I planned on volunteering to teach a workshop for other homeschool parents on using technology as an educational tool and even intended to write a blog about the superiority of security features on iOS devices. I wanted other parents to experience the pleasure I derived from knowing my kids were learning through methods that took advantage of their learning styles while still using technology safely.

iRegret my decision deeply.

Then one night I got a wakeup call. Literally. For reasons I never bothered to explore, the alarm on my 10-year-old daughter’s iPod went off at 1:00am. You can imagine the shock and confusion I experienced after I located the device, cancelled the alarm and noticed a new chat message notification on her screen from an app I didn’t recognize called OpenFeint. The security controls were all still in place and nobody has the password to my Apple ID so it’s not possible for her to have downloaded something without my knowledge. My daughter had indeed broken the rules and set up a social profile without my permission, the question was how? The answer literally took the wind out of me as if I’d been punched in the gut: Fruit Ninja, an app rated for kids 4+ and one of the most popular games available on mobile devices. Ever.

This simple, innocuous game involves slicing flying fruit and has been purchased by over 10 million people on iOS and Android platforms. Reading the iTunes Preview you won’t find anything to alert parents that this popular game comes standard with an insidious built-in online social network, giving strangers and pedophiles across the globe the ability to talk to your child through that sleek little device they keep in their pocket. If you click the “…more” link and search for a description of what the game is about, you’ll come across a sentence mentioned ever-so-casually at the end as if it is a mere afterthought: “It also has awesome global leaderboards and achievements to unlock!”

What they don’t tell you is that those global leaderboards and achievements are provided courtesy of OpenFeint, a company that was sued in 2011 for alleged computer fraud, invasion of privacy and other statutory violations. According to an article by Courthouse News, OpenFeint’s business plan “included accessing and disclosing personal information without authorization to mobile-device application developers, advertising networks and web-analytic vendors that market mobile applications.” Despite legal accusations of serious privacy violations, both Apple and Google continue to partner with OpenFeint via Game Center and various games available on app stores for both platforms. Developers are not required to warn parents or users in any way.

iTouch myself… and other things iWish iHadn’t read.

Through OpenFeint, my 5th grader had made over 250 online “friends,” many of whom she’d exchanged several messages with, and starred over 50 threads in various forums as “favorites.” One of the threads was titled, “Only for gurls who want to chat” and it included posts such as “Call this number for sex” and “I touch myself down there but I’m not sure I’m doing it right.” My daughter, who loves animals, had chosen the screen name “Pretty Fox” and innocently told perfect strangers her real name, age and the state and city she lives in. She had set up user profile information which, according to a blog by TechCrunch, can be streamed to other users while she’s actively playing any OpenFeint enabled games via a new feature called GameFeed thanks to the “online game services” it offers via its “cloud-based web environment.” If you’re not seriously alarmed yet, how about if I tell you that OpenFeint is integrated into over 3800 games as of December, 2012, has over 115 million registered users and it isn’t the only clandestine social network hiding inside games on mobile devices.

Remember that “Game Center” feature that had me bugged from day one? It turns out, that’s a social gaming platform designed by Apple that is now integrated into all iOS devices as well as Mountain Lion, the latest operating system for Mac home computers and laptops. Additionally, a platform called Heyzap has recently launched onto both iOS and Android and seems determined to establish itself as OpenFeint’s main competitor. When you launch a Heyzap enabled game the first screen you see may ask you to set up a user name and password. They tell you it’s optional, but they don’t tell you it’s not part of the game. Even worse, there’s no way to disable, remove or block any of these programs from your device. They are integrated into the operating system or woven right into the fabric of the game itself. Shame on them! Especially a company like Apple who purports to make these devices safe for kids to use and lulls us into complacency with “parental controls” that offer no protection against the worst threat kids face online today. iStrangers.

iCan’t understand any of this.

If you are one of many not-so-tech-savvy parents confused by my pseudo-nerd rant, please allow me to explain in plain English: you see a game in the app store on iPhone that said it was safe for kids age 4 and up. You spend your hard earned money on it, download it and install it. Your child begs to play a game on your phone while you’re otherwise occupied at the bank or driving MacGyver Junior to soccer practice. Junior gets bored with the game itself and goes exploring into Game Center. All Junior has to do is click a couple of buttons and enter a nickname and in a few minutes he or she can exchange direct messages with millions of strangers disguised as “friends.” It only takes one message containing your child’s personal details to make them vulnerable to online predators. Sound too easy and too scary to be true? Check out this link that shows you step-by-step how easy it is to set up Game Center. It’s so easy, even a child could do it! I should know, my little MacGyver Junior did exactly that despite all the restrictions I had so trustingly placed on his iPedophile.

iProfits should not outweigh iCommonSense

These gaming networks offer unsuspecting children the promise of daily “free games” and encourage them to share their “achievements” proudly with the rest of the world. I’m sorry, but there are people out there who have no damn business looking at my 10-year-old daughter’s achievements. Pretty Fox lost her iPervert pocket device for a month and when it gets returned to her there will be no Wi-fi access again until after she’s well past iPuberty. iThank my lucky stars her alarm went off when it did and that iPaid attention to what she had open on her screen. iHope by writing this blog that iRaise the alarm for other parents and together we can put pressure on the technology industry to get some real safety measures in place on the technology they all too willing to market to our children. Pretty Fox begged me not to tell anyone that she broke my rules and chatted with strangers online.

iLove her and iCare about kids in general too much to do that. iBet you do as well or you wouldn’t have read this all the way to the end, so iBeg you to share this with every parent you know. iThankU.

4 Responses to How iFailed at Keeping my Kids Safe Online

  • Anonymous Bloke

    I quite agree about the apps not being as secure as they should be, but I see another very obvious problem. I don’t think you are approaching the problem in the correct way. It is not a matter or blocking your kids from doing what they want, it is a matter of teaching them what is right and wrong. If you would just put as much effort in educating your kids that they can’t download apps or watch youtube without your permission, you wouldn’t need to install all these crazy restrictions. Then you can always check browsing history or what apps have been launched to verify that they are following the rules. -1 for lazy parenting.

    • Sunny Aldrich, Professional ADD Coach

      Do you have kids Bloke? Also curious if you read the entire blog because I did explain about my kids and rules. I was raised with very strict rules and by comparison was an extremely compliant child. However, I didn’t always follow my parents rules and I don’t know any child that does. There is an adrenaline rush or “thrill” that can come from doing something that is taboo and after the rush is over adrenaline breaks down into Dopamine. I’m parenting two children with a dopamine deficiency, so ANY activities or substances that produce a biological dopamine response can (and do) become repetitive behavior in children and in adults. That’s one of the reasons why people with ADHD are at higher risk for addictions of all kinds.

    • phil

      or you have your head up your arse and your own kids are doing it behind your back….cant watch your kids 24/7…please share your expert views how to know what your kids are always up to being the perfect father that you are….given you cant be with the all the time…iam quite sure you never managed to do anything against your parents wishes growing up….cop on man …lazy parenting…at least she is not stupid enough to think her kids will do as she says all the time…like your kids do…..you might think your kids listen but take your head out of your arse and cop on…before its to late!!!

  • Kara

    Anonymous Bloke – I see a rather obvious problem myself. You do not know the author or her children. I do. Allow me to enlighten you – “lazy parent” is about the furthest phrase that comes to mind when you meet her. I have 4 children myself with varying degrees of mental and medical challenges, so I spend a LOT of time with other parents whose lives tend to revolve around their children’s particular quirks. I can count on one hand the number of parents who are as actively engaged and involved in EVERY aspect of their children’s lives, off- and on-line. I can absolutely assure you that her children have been taught the difference between right and wrong, and in MOST cases follow the rules without issue. However, all children at some point push limits, test boundaries, and some, her youngest in particular, just enjoy the challenge of a good puzzle.

    Now I don’t know you, so I can’t make assumptions about your family or parenting style as you have done about the author. But, I can say that in general, as Phil pointed out above, if you are putting all of you faith in the fact that you “raised your kids right and they know better” you are probably in for a very rude awakening soon. I just hope for your sake, and for your child’s, that it doesn’t come with too high of a price.

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