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Parents' Ultimate Guide to Smart Devices

More than six in 10 parents say their young kids interact with voice-activated assistants. Are you one of them? If you’re weighing the pros and cons of products such as smart watches, smart speakers, and even smartphones that track pretty much everything you do, a peek behind the curtain will help you determine whether the benefits to your family are worth it.

 

This guide tells you all about smart devices — what they are, what they can do for you and your family, how to use them as safely as possible, and how to protect your family’s privacy in a world increasingly powered by data.

What are smart devices?

The “smart” part refers to any device that communicates with other devices over the internet. But the kinds of smart products designed for home or personal use, such Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo, Facebook Portal, and Google Home smart speakers, can also adapt to their owners using artificial intelligence technology that “learns” your behavior. These types of products can save time, effort, money, and even human life. They make it easy to play music, get homework help, and make a grocery list. Smart thermostats and lights, for example, can reduce your energy bill. And smart medical devices can alert your doctor when your kid’s asthma flares up.

How do smart products work?

Unlike “dumb” electronics, smart products use a combination of data and sophisticated software calculations to do what you want them to do. They can take information from a variety of sources, including human voices, sensors that monitor the environment, biometrics (thumbprints and faces), and apps, so every product performs a little differently for each person. But the biggest difference between smart devices and regular ones are that they need you–specifically your data–to customize to your needs. And all that data needs to go somewhere, so it’s usually stored in the “cloud” (basically, giant computer servers) out of your sight and mostly out of your control.

What kinds of information do smart devices collect?

Smart devices collect–at the very least–the data they need to provide you with the service they’re offering. For example, your kid’s location-aware watch tracks his whereabouts. A smart refrigerator tracks what food you buy. Home assistants track your requests. But they typically collect way more data than they technically need to do their job. The watch still monitors your kid’s location even when he’s at home eating dinner and may also log which other watches are nearby it or track fitness metrics. The fridge may track every time someone opens the door. It’s unclear how much smart speakers pick up of your home chatter, since they sometimes butt in to conversations unexpectedly. Companies claim that they need this data to make their products work better. But they also use it to build consumer profiles to make educated guesses about what you’re likely to buy in the future. These models are valuable, and they use them to sell you stuff or sell your data profile to other companies. For example, your fridge could sell your data to an ice cream company or a health insurance provider.

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What is COPPA, and how does it protect my child?

COPPA stands for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It’s a federal law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). COPPA prevents online companies from collecting and using data from kids under 13 without parental consent. This is why nearly all social media companies set their minimum age requirement at 13–because their business models depend on tracking users. Smart devices aren’t allowed to knowingly track kids because of the COPPA rule, but when the devices are used in the home, they don’t necessarily know the ages of all users. When you set up individual profiles for your kids on smart speakers, it somewhat limits what information the device can collect and store when it knows a kid is using it.

How can I limit the data my smart devices collect?

Most connected products have privacy settings that put limits on the use of your data, such as how much the company can collect, what they use it for, how long they can keep it, and how you–as the source of that data–can interact with it. You can usually find privacy settings in your account profile on the company’s website or on an associated app (which is often required to run a smart device). Some privacy features, such as location services, can only be turned on or off. Some you can fine-tune. In the Alexa app that works with Amazon’s Echo, for example, you can restrict Amazon from using your voice recordings for certain purposes. They may still collect this information; they just can’t use it for purposes you’ve opted out of.

What’s the safest way for my family to use smart devices?

Use strong passwords — and make sure your kids do, too. Strong, well-protected passwords can thwart hackers looking for easy combinations to gain access to your information. Also, take advantage of additional security measures such as two-factor authentication.

Protect children with parental consent. If kids will be interacting with smart devices and companies give you the option of setting up profiles for them, take advantage of that feature, as it can limit what’s collected. If you want your kids to have, say, their own home assistant for their room, just make sure you enable all the privacy settings you can. To be ultra safe (some might think paranoid), you can turn off the device’s microphone at night after the kids go to bed.

Remind your kids to connect safely. Public networks are prime targets for hackers (both local and international), so try to avoid them. If you have to use a public network, consider downloading a VPN (virtual private network) and make sure to enable the browser setting “always use HTTPS” to add another layer of encryption to your data.

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Common Sense
Author: Common Sense

Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org and sign up for our newsletter to read more articles like this.

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Guide to Smart Devices

by Common Sense time to read: 5 min