Author Archives: Toni Birdsong

5 Fun Ways to Keep Family Connections Strong (and Secure) This Holiday 

Digital holiday dinner

5 Fun Ways to Keep Family Connections Strong (and Secure) This Holiday

The reality is beginning to hit: The holiday season will look and feel different this year. Traditional family gatherings, complete with mile-long dinner tables and flag football games, are now considered COVID “super spreader” events, putting a dent in plans for large gatherings.

Still, there’s a bright side. We may be dealing with a pandemic, but we also happen to live in time of amazing technology and ingenuity. That means when the face-to-face connection isn’t possible, we can connect with a click or two.

Physical and Digital Safety

According to the Center for Disease Control, it’s important to keep basic safety protocols such as mask-wearing, disinfecting, and social distancing in place. In addition, they recommend limiting the number of guests, celebrating outdoors if possible, and limiting the number of people in food prep areas. One of the most important things you can do, says the CDC, is to “have conversations with guests ahead of time to set expectations for celebrating together.”

A part of those conversations can also include ways to digitally connect with elderly or at risk loved ones who can’t gather and how to do it safely and securely. Here are a few ideas to get you rolling.

5 Creative (and Safe) Ways to Stay Connected

One big tip in organizing a successful, digitally connected holiday is to prep your technology logistics before your gathering. Ensure everyone invited to the call has downloaded the right app, adjusted privacy settings, and understands app and safety basics. For family members who may be uncomfortable connecting digitally, consider calling a few days ahead of time, previewing the app, and answering any questions. Prepping your tech will maximize your time together and ensure everyone feels confident.

1. Cook together. Use video apps such as FaceTime or Zoom to share recipes and even have grandma teach the kids to cook her famous corn casserole. Since everyone is together, you may even want to crowdsource favorite family recipes in a google doc and make a family cookbook.
Safe Family Tip: Your FaceTime app is always ideal because it’s encrypted and still private. When using video apps such as Zoom, make sure your account and meeting settings are personal.

2. Share a virtual mealtime. You might be surprised at how much fun sharing a mealtime virtually can be (we’ve tried it!) It’s easy: Set up your phone or computer on a stationary tripod or shelf that frames your dinner table. Agree on a time with family members. Dial them up on your phone or in your app. Toast the holiday in real-time.

Safe Family Tip: Be aware that with the increase in people going online to connect with family, shop, and work, hackers are also working overtime to get into Zoom (and other apps) conversations and figure out ways to plant malware. With increased digital activity, think about a comprehensive security solution, which can help protect devices against malware, phishing attacks, and other threats.

3. Enjoy movie time together. Using apps like Hulu Watch Party, Watch2gether, Amazon Watch, Netflix Party, and Houseparty makes it easy to watch a movie together from multiple locations. For kids, there’s Disney Plus Party for kid-friendly group viewing. Some of the apps require screen sharing, others separate logins, while others are simply one account holder sharing a link. The Verge offers this step-by-step on how to for several of these apps.

Safe Family Tip: Make sure the movie site or app you are using is legal and safe. Cybercriminals are hot on the trail of movie fans and have created movie apps designed to download malware onto computers. Avoid clicking on pop-up ads or random links while looking for movies or apps. Add an extra layer of protection using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to encrypt your online activity, keep your identity secure, and secure downloads.

4. Multiplayer Game Apps. Don’t worry. Family game night lives on! Even if you are separated by miles, you can play virtual family games like Charades, Uno, Pictionary, Trivia, and many video games.

Safe Family Tip: Be sure the app you are downloading is legitimate. Read reviews and make sure there aren’t any virus or malware issues before downloading. Once downloaded, maximize your safety settings on the app, use strong passwords, and only connect with known players.

5. Virtual Karaoke. Gather on apps like Smule to enjoy some family karaoke together.

Safe Family Tip: Any group app can be a danger zone for cyberbullying or connection from strangers. Be sure that family members are aware of the dangers of allowing younger users to keep these apps on their phones following the holidays. Parental Control Software is an easy way to make sure your kids engage with safe content online.

Thanks to technology, it’s possible to shrink just about any distance. Will it take effort? Sure. Some learning? Yup. But hopefully, even though your home may feel a little more empty this year, your heart will be full.

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Helping Your Family Combat Digital Misinformation

children learning about misinformation

Helping Your Family Combat Digital Misinformation

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that our ability to think critically about the information we encounter online is now a fundamental life skill we need to learn, practice, and pass on to our offspring. But the actual task of teaching kids how to discern real and fabricated information online these days is easier said than done.

How did the truth get so hard to pin down? In the documentary The Social Dilemma, the answer to that question comes down to two things: Our growing reliance on social media for both human connection and information and the data-based algorithms social networks use to mine and sell data, nurture device dependence, and influence our behavior.

2019 Pew Study reveals that 55 percent of US adults get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes.” A July 2020 Pew Study shows that people who rely on social media for news are less likely to get the facts right about the coronavirus and politics and more likely to hear some unproven claims.

The power of algorithms to deliver customized, manipulative content to a person’s screen is alarming, says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, who is featured in The Social Dilemma, adding, “Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.”

Fighting Back

On the heels of the recent election, Media Literacy skills will make a difference as false reports are likely to surface in our social feeds in the foreseeable future. For many, the willpower to shut down their social feeds altogether isn’t a viable option. So how do we wade through the veiled forms of manipulation and misinformation taking place all around us online?

One approach is to make a personal commitment to stay alert, slow down, and carefully vet the content you consume, create, or share.

Media Literacy 

One thing you might consider is making 2021 the year your family masters Media Literacy, a topic we’ve written extensively about on this blog. In short, Media Literacy is the ability to identify different types of content and understand the messages each is sending. Content includes texts, social media memes or posts, videos, television, movies, video games, music, and various other digital content. Reminder: Someone creates each piece of content and that person, group, or company has an agenda or message.

Grow Your Family’s Media Literacy Muscle

  • Watch: The Social Dilemma is a must-see for families. The Netflix film blends documentary investigation and narrative drama to explain the hidden maneuvers behind social media and search platforms. Watch it. Talk about it. Do social media wiser in 2021.
  • Go Deeper: The Social Dilemma refers to books written by the people interviewed and includes collateral video clips. Medium put together this great list of supporting quotes and resources from the film.
  • Read: Stories are powerful ways to teach kids of any age how to process the digital world around them. The Media Literacy thought leaders at Cyberwise recently created this list of children’s books designed to teach kids how to think critically and become informed consumers of online media.
  • Fact-check. Even kids have a responsibility to share truthful content online. Discuss how to fact check articles and rumors before sharing. Here are a few resources:
  • PolitiFact from the Poynter Institute
  •  AP News Fact Check from the Associated Press
  •  Reuters Fact Check from Reuters News
  • Discuss: Talk about the practical ways of challenging each piece of content by asking:

Do I understand all the points of view of this story?

What do I think about this topic or idea?

Am I overly emotional and eager to share this?

Am I being manipulated by this content?

What if I’m wrong?

Lastly, consume all media with thoughtful intention — avoid mindless scrolling and liking. A few other practical ways to fight back against the algorithms we drew from The Social Dilemma: Don’t click on video or content recommendations. Fight back against algorithms by choosing your content. Uninstall social media apps that are not useful and waste your time. Turn off notifications or any other alert that interferes with living life. If an issue has you angry or emotional, stop, breathe, and research the facts before sharing.

 

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Cruel Ghouls: New Digital Scams Target Every Age Group

Halloween Scams

Cruel Ghouls: New Digital Scams Target Every Age Group

There are few situations more personal than a distressed family member calling to ask for financial help. But personal is precisely the angle bad actors are taking these days in scams that target both the young and old.

Grandparents Fall for Help!’ Scams

Called “The Grandparent Scam,” this con usually begins with a simple, “Hi, Grandma!” from a criminal posing as the victim’s grandchild who claims to be in trouble. Then comes the ask — that the loving (and worried) Grandparent wire money for bail, airfare, a collision, or some other emergency. Some scammers have even managed to spoof the incoming caller ID to read “U.S. District Court.”

Safe Family Tips: 1) Ask the caller to prove who they are and call the child’s parent or another relative to verify the situation. 2) Never wire money, gift cards, or send cash by courier. 3) Be skeptical of “urgent” requests and tearful pleas for cash or personal information.

Tricksters Target Millennials

While it’s hard to imagine being duped by this kind of phone call, you might be surprised to learn that it’s younger people falling hardest for scams. The Federal Trade Commission reports that Millennials (20-30-year-olds) are most likely to lose money to online fraud. The top 5 scams targeting Millennials include online shopping, business imposters, government imposters, fake check scams, and romance scams.

Safe Family Tips: Be skeptical when shopping online. Cybercriminals have created countless look-a-like merchant sites to gain access to your credit card and other personal information. Confirm the seller’s physical address and phone number before you make a purchase. Consider putting security software on your family’s devices that protect against malware, viruses, and provide families with Virtual Private Network (VPN) encryption for safe shopping.

Hackers Exploit Schools, Students

With many school districts operating on a hybrid virtual and in-class education model, the digital gap between teachers and remote students has given bad actors a new channel to launch ransomware, phishing, and social engineering scams against exposed IT infrastructures. According to the FBI, “cyber actors are likely to increase targeting of K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Too, a recent Microsoft Security Intelligence study found that 61 percent of the 7.7 million malware over the previous month targeted education, a number far higher than other sectors. Scams include malware attacks on e-learning platform ransomware attacks on larger districts.

Safe Family Tips: Inquire about on-site security measures in place at your child’s school. Look into software to protect your home network and personal devices against cyberattacks launched through email, school networks, or social media sites.

How’s Your Cyber Hygiene?

Your best defense against a scam — should it come via phone, email, or a website — is a solid offense. Consider boosting your cyber hygiene routine by using strong passwords, a VPN, and staying informed about the latest scams. By now, we know the bad actors online don’t discriminate based on age; they are out to steal data and dollars from anyone who lets down their guard.

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#BeCyberSmart: Equipping Kids to Stay Safe on New Video Apps

protecting kids online

These days, spending time with friends face-to-face still isn’t always an option for teens. So, finding a fun, new app can be a little like discovering your own private beach where you can chill out, connect with friends, and be thoroughly entertained. Keeping them safe on that digital beach? That’s where parents can make a difference.

With all the popular, increasingly sophisticated video apps available, it’s easy to understand why safety ends up being the last thing on our kids’ minds. I get it. My daughter and I recently sat for hours watching Tik Tok videos and laughing until we cried.

However, October is National Cybersecurity Month and the perfect time to hit pause and talk about how to stay safe on all the apps vying for our attention.

Popular Apps to Monitor

Triller. The Triller app is a video-based platform, much like Tik Tok, that has been around since 2015. Triller has a variety of filters, and music kids can use with the videos they create.

What to monitor: Triller’s content may not always be appropriate, and because viewers can leave comments on videos, there’s a risk of cyberbullying. Also, Triller has some privacy loopholes such as data collection, location tracking, and a public account default — all of which can be modified in Settings.

HouseParty is a group video chat platform nicknamed the “Quarantine App” since its popularity increased by an additional 10 million users during the COVID lockdown. Houseparty allows users to invite friends and “friends of friends” into group video-chat sessions — much like a party. The app displays up to eight live streams on the screen at a time, creating an instant sense of community.

What to monitor. Because the app allows “friends of friends” to livestream in a group, that unknown element opens the door to a number of safety issues. Encourage kids to deny join requests from unknown people. While some users leave rooms unlocked while live streaming their party, encourage your child to use the padlock function to limit conversations to people who know each other.

Yubo. The Yubo app (formerly Yellow) is also called the “Tinder for Teens.” Kids can connect and live stream with people they know — and easily connect with people they don’t. If two users swipe right, Yubo will match them, and they can share Snapchat or Instagram names. Another app very similar to Yubo is the Hoop app.

What to monitor. Content on Yubo can be explicit and cyberbullying can arise more often since fake accounts are common. Yubo’s swipe format promotes a appearance driven match standard may not be healthy for some teens.

Byte. Another app similar to Tik Tok, Byte, features short-form videos. Byte, created by the Founders of the now defunct Vine app, lacks the filters and music of other video apps, but that’s okay; the simplicity is a plus for Byte fans.

What to monitor: Be aware of inappropriate content, cyberbullying in comments, and unknown “friends” who may be part of your child’s Byte community. Online predators have been known to reach out to kids on this app. While unwanted followers can be blocked, surprisingly, Byte doesn’t give you the ability to make your account private.

App Safety Basics

Practice personal responsibility. The theme for Cybersecurity Month 2020 is Do Your Part #BeCyberSmart. With this in mind, discuss the responsibility that comes with owning technology, be it a smartphone, a game system, a smartwatch, or any other connected device. The goal, says The National Cyber Security Alliance,

“If you connect it, protect it.”

Privacy settings. To protect privacy and keep unknown people from connecting with minors, maximize privacy Settings on each new app.

Increase safeguards. Apps can be addictive and siphon family time, study time, and sleep. A comprehensive security solution can help parents limit device time, monitor activity, and block risky content and apps.

Share wisely. Even a 15-second video shared with “close friends only” can end up in the public stream. Advise your child to only share videos or photos they’d feel good sharing with the world.

Protect personal information. Remind your child not to share private details about themselves or their family members with anyone online. This includes emails, full names, phone numbers, pet names, school names, or location.

Block and report. Talk with your child about what you consider appropriate versus inappropriate content, how to block strangers, and how to report cyberbullying and scams.

Finally, keep talking with your kids — about everything. Ultimately, it will be your consistency in having honest, ongoing dialogue with your child that will be your most valuable tool in keeping them safe online.

 

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8 Ways to Help Senior Adults Stay Safe Online These Days

senior looking at smartphone

8 Ways to Help Senior Adults Stay Safe Online These Days

Technology has come in handy for most of us during these days of pandemic distancing. But for the -at-risk, homebound senior population, technology has been a lifeline connecting them to family members, online services, and healthcare. Still, this unprecedented shift to virtual life has also come with potential risks that seniors and their families should keep in mind.

According to a Pew study, senior adults continue to become more digitally connected, but adoption rates continue to trail younger users, and digital divides remain. The study also revealed that 77% of older adults needed assistance when it came to learning how to use technology.

If you are a senior or someone helping a senior become more tech-savvy, online safety should be a priority. Here are just some of the risks seniors may encounter and some helpful ways to stay safe.

Secure home routers and devices. Be sure to change your router’s default username and password to something strong and unique. Also, change the default passwords of any connected device before connecting to your home network. IoT (Internet of Things) devices are all the technologies under your roof that can connect such as security systems, healthcare monitors, hearing aids, and smart TVs.  These technologies are embedded with sensors or software that can connect and exchange data with other household devices — and each must be secured to close privacy gaps. There are also routers with embedded security, to help secure the home from threats, no matter what devices is connected to the home network.

Use strong passwords. Strong passwords are essential for in-home devices, personal devices, social media sites, and any healthcare or banking portal. Creating a strong password is also a front-line defense against identity theft and fraud.  For seniors, keeping passwords in one place is important, but can be hard to remember them all.  comprehensive security software  includes password management functionality, which makes it easer, to create and safely archive your passwords. -.

Avoid scams. There are a number of scams that target seniors. Phishing scams are emails that look legitimate that end up taking millions from seniors every year. For this reason, never click on suspicious links from government agencies, banks, hospitals, brokerages, charities, or bill collectors unless you are certain they are legitimate. Scammers use these malicious links to con people out of giving away cash or personal data that can be used to create a number of fraudulent accounts. Consider protecting all personal devices with a comprehensive security solution.

Use a personal VPN. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts (or scrambles) your data when you connect to the Internet and enables you to browse or bank with your credentials and history protected. To learn about VPNs, watch this video.

Beware of dating scams. People aren’t always who they appear to be online. And while dating scams can happen to any age group, they can be especially harmful to a vulnerable senior who may be lonely and living on a limited income. Love scam red flags: Beware of people who claim to be from the U.S. but often travel or work overseas. Also, avoid people who profess their love too quickly, share personal struggles too soon, and never meet face-to-face.

Take a closer look. Fraudulent websites look very real these days. A secure website will have an “https” in the browser’s address bar. The “s” stands for “secure.” If the web address or URL is just http, it’s not a secure site. Still unsure? Read reviews of the site from other users before making a purchase. Never send cash, cashier’s check, or a personal check to any online vendor. If purchasing, always use a credit card in case there is a dispute.

Never share personal data. Be wary of emails or websites that require you to give personal information, such as your social security number, phone number, account, or family information.  This includes those fun social media quizzes, which are also ways that cybercriminals can find out your personal details, such as a pets name, year you were born, your home town. All those pieces of personal data can be used to commit identity theft.

Monitor financial accounts. Nowadays, it’s essential to review all financial statements for fraudulent activity. If suspicious activity is found, report it to your bank or credit card account immediately. It’s also a good idea to put a credit alert on your accounts to detect potential fraud.

This unique time has issued unique challenges to every age group. However, if you know a senior, keep their potential technology needs in mind. Check in from time to time and offer your help. If you are a tech-savvy senior (and I know many), consider reaching out to peers who may be struggling and afraid to ask. In addition, YouTube has a number of easy-to-understand videos on any tech question. In addition, both Apple and Microsoft stores offer free advice on their products and may also help. Just be sure to visit their official websites to reach legitimate tech support channels.

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Can You Decode Your Teen’s Texting Language?

texting slang

It’s hard to believe, right, parents? In just a blink or two, you went from being the teenager dropping cool phrases like “rad” and “gnarly” to monitoring a teenager texting words like “lowkey,” “IRL” and “CD9” into her smartphone non-stop.*

For generations, teens have been crafting terms to differentiate themselves from other age groups. The difference today is that smartphone texting has multiplied the scope of that code to include words, emojis, numbers, and hashtags.

The times have changed, fo’ sho.’

Digital Deciphering

You don’t have to speak your child’s language (please don’t). However, with new terms and risks emerging online each day, it’s a good idea to at least understand what they are saying.

Since kids have been spending more time online due to the pandemic, we thought we might discover a few new and interesting terms. We were right. We found stories of teens referring to the Coronavirus as “Miss Rona” and “Rona,” and abbreviating quarantine to “Quar.” A “Corona Bae” is the person you would only plan to date during a lockdown.

Much of the coded language kids use is meant to be funny, sarcastic, or a quick abbreviation. However, there are times when a text exchange can slip into risky territory. Seemingly harmless, text exchanges can spark consequences such as bullying, sextortion, privacy violations, and emotional or physical harm.

Stay Connected

To help kids avoid dangerous digital situations, we recommend three things: 1) Talk early and often with your kids about digital risk and behavior expectations, 2) Explore and use parental monitoring software, and 3) Know your child’s friends and communities online and in real life.

Note: Context is everything. Many of these terms are used in jest or as casual banter. Be sure to understand the context in which a word is used.

A Few Terms You May See **

Flex. This term means showing off. For example, “Look at her trying to flex with her new car.”

Crashy. Description of a person who is thought to be both crazy and trashy.

Clap back. A comeback filled with attitude.

Cringey. Another word for embarrassing.

Hop off. Mind your own business.

Spill tea or Kiki. Dishing gossip.

Sip tea. Listening to gossip.

Salty. Mad, angry, jealous, bitter, upset, or irritated.

“She gave me a salty look in class.”

Extra. Over the top or unnecessarily dramatic.

Left on read. Not replying to someone’s message.

Ghosting. Ending a friendship or relationship online with no explanation.

Neglext. Abandon someone in the middle of a text conversation.

Ok, Boomer. Dismissing someone who is not up to date enough.

(Throw) shade. Insult or trash talk discreetly.

Receipts. Getting digital proof, usually in the form of screenshots.

THOT. Acronym for That H__ Over There.

Thirsty. A term describing a person as desperate or needy. “Look at her staring at him — she’s so thirsty.”

Thirst trap. A sexy photograph or message posted on social media.

Dis. Short for showing blatant disrespect.

Preeing. A word that describes stalking or being stalked on Facebook.

Basic. Referring to a person as mainstream, nothing special. Usually used in a negative connotation.

Chasing Clout. A negative term describing someone trying too hard to get followers on social media.

9, CD9, or Code9, PAW, POS. Parents are around, over the shoulder.

99. All clear, the parents are gone. Safe to resume texting or planning.

KPC. Keeping parents clueless.

Cheddar, Cheese, or Bread. These are all terms that mean money.

Cap. Means to lie as in “she’s capping.” Sending the baseball cap emoji expresses the same feeling. No capping means “I’m not lying.”

Hundo P. Term that is short for “hundred percent;” absolutely, for sure.

Woke. Aware of and outspoken on current on political and social issues.

And I oop. Lighthearted term to describe a silly mistake.

Big oof. A slightly bigger mistake.

Yeet. An expression of excitement. For example, “He kissed me. Yeeeet!”

Retweet. Instead of saying, “yes, I agree,” you say, “retweet.”

Canceled. Absurd or foolish behavior is “canceled.” For example, “He was too negative on our date, so I canceled him.”

Slap or Snatched. Terms that mean fashionable or on point. For instance, “Those shoes are slap” or “You look snatched.”

And just for fun, here’s a laugh out loud video from comedian Seth Meyer’s on teen Coronavirus slang you’ll enjoy on YouTube.

* lowkey (a feeling you want to keep secret), IRL (In Real Life), CD9 also Code9 (Adult Alert used to hide secretive activity). ** Terms collected from various sources, including NetLingo.com, UrbanDictionary.com, webopedia.com, and from tweets and posts from teens online.

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Back-to-School: Could Your Remote Learner Be Cyber Cheating?

Back-to-School cyber-cheating

Back-to-School: Could Your Remote Learner Be Cyber Cheating?

As families across the country ramp up for the new school year, most are considering one of three basic learning options. Kids can attend traditional, in-class learning, they can attend their classes online from home, or they can choose a hybrid of the two. There are also learning pods, or small community groups, springing up as we recently discussed.

Whatever learning scenario your family chooses, each will likely have its own unique challenges. One challenge that seems to be heating up online chats lately is cyber cheating. And it’s not just teachers, administrators, and parents concerned about the potential fallout, kids aren’t thrilled either.

Macy, who is going into her sophomore year of high school will be returning to the classroom. “I’m going to be in class every day taking notes and then studying at night. On exam day, I’ll take the exam and if it’s a tough subject like Statistics, I will be lucky to get a C. My friend Lindley, whose parents let her learn do school online can take the same exam, figure out a way to cheat, and probably get an A. How is that fair?”

The topic is inspiring a number of potential solutions.

Some schools have included cyber cheating as part of their Back-to-School Guidelines for teachers. Others are leaving testing and monitoring up to individual teachers while some districts with bigger budgets are hiring digital proctors or relying on robots, video feeds, and webcams to curb cyber cheating.

At the college level, the effort to reduce cyber cheating is getting sophisticated. T staff at Georgia Tech recently programmed an online bot named Jack to infiltrate popular online cheating sites and pose as a student willing to write papers and do homework for a fee. It’s working.

While exactly how to even out testing requirements for all students — in-class or at home — is a work in progress, there are some practical ways to set your kids up for success this school year wherever they choose to learn.

Ways to Curb Cyber Cheating

Discuss expectations. Does your child understand exactly what cheating is? Sometimes the lines between the real world and the digital world can blur and create grey areas that are tough for kids to navigate. Depending on the age of your child, be sure to define cheating and establish the expectation of integrity and honesty whether in a classroom or at home. Discuss the goal of comprehension and understanding versus googling answers.

Don’t do your child’s work. Parents want to help struggling kids but can often go overboard. When we do our child’s work, it’s easy to forget — we’re actually cheating!

Review the hot topics. Discuss the big topics around cheating such as plagiarism, googling answers, cheat sites, downloading past tests, crib sheets, sharing school work between friends, doing work for others, copyright violations, giving proper attribution.

Keep in touch with teachers. With school guidelines constantly changing, it’s important to keep in close contact with teachers. Ask about test monitoring and expectations for remote students.

Be present. It’s natural to hover over younger kids but we can get lax with our teens. Be present and monitor their workload. Let your remote high schooler know that his or her learning is a priority.

Monitor workload. As academic pressure mounts, so too can the temptation to cut corners or cheat. Talk through the rough spots, get your child a tutor if needed, and step in to help prepare for tests (just don’t do the work).

Rely on software for help. If you suspect our child may be cheating, or that it may be a temptation, use parental monitoring software. Monitoring software can show you a log of sites accessed on any given day and allow you to block other sites.

Equip Yourself. Follow the advice of a Pennsylvania superintendent who says his teachers will be reading Generation Z Unfiltered, a book by Tim Elmore, to help them easily identify signs of cheating.

No matter where your child settles in to learn this year, it will take a family-sized effort to navigate these new academic halls. Stick together, keep talking, give extra grace for mistakes along the way, and work together to make this the best school year ever. You’ve got this, parents!

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How to Keep Remote Learning Pod Students Safe Online 

learning pods

The upheaval of 2020 has forced us all to reimagine familiar pathways, and parents are no exception. Cautious about sending their kids back into the classroom, families across the country are banding together to form remote “learning pods.”

pod learning

Learning pods are small groups of families with like-aged children that agree to educate their kids together. Parents also refer to learning pods as micro-schools, pandemic pods, and bubbles. According to parents, a pod environment will allow students to learn in a structured setting and safely connect with peers, which will also be a boost to their mental health following months of isolation.

According to media reports, each pod’s structure is different and designed to echo the unique distance learning challenges of each family. In some pods, parents will determine the curriculum. In others, a teacher or tutor will. As well, parents have set some pods up so they can take turns teaching and working. Some will have a cost attached to cover teacher fees and materials. Working parents are also creating “nanny share” pods for pre-school aged children.

Social Networking

Facebook is the place to connect for families seeking pod learning options. There are now dozens of private Facebook “pod” groups that enable parents to connect with one another and with teachers who have also opted out of returning to the classroom.

While parents may structure pods differently, each will need to adopt standard digital security practices to protect students and teachers who may share online resources. If pod learning is in your family’s future, here are a few safeguards to discuss before the pod-based school year begins.

To keep the family discussion about online safety fun, here are 6 Flashcard Tips from MBot to print out and discuss with your kids.

Digital Safety & Learning Pods

Be on the lookout for malware. Malware attempts, since COVID, continue to rise. Pod learners may use email, web-based collaboration tools, and outside home networks more, which can expose them to malware risks. Advise kids never to click unsolicited links contained in emails, texts, direct messages, or pop-up screens. Even if they know the sender, coach them to scrutinize the email or text. To help protect your child’s devices against malware, phishing attacks, and other threats while pod learning, consider updating your security solutions across all devices.

Use strong passwords. Back-to-school is a great time to review what makes a strong password. Opt for two-factor authentication to add another layer of protection between you and a potential attacker.

learning pods

Consider a VPN. Your home network may be safe, but you can’t assume other families follow the same protocols. Cover your bases with a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) is a private network your child can log onto safely from any location.

Filter and track digital activity. One digital safeguard schools usually have that a home environment may not, are firewalls. Schools erect firewalls to keep kids from accessing social networks and gaming sites during school hours. For this reason, families opting for pod learning might consider parental controls. Parental controls allow families to filter or block web content, log daily web activity, set time limits, and track location.

Learning pods are still taking shape at the grassroots level, and there are still a lot of unknowns. Still, one thing is clear: Remote education options also carry an inherent responsibility to keep students safe and secure while learning online.

(Download some fun, free content for kids. Here are 6 online safety flashcard tips from MBot. Just print out and discuss with your kids).

The post How to Keep Remote Learning Pod Students Safe Online  appeared first on McAfee Blogs.

 Ways to Strengthen Your Family’s Digital and Mental Wellbeing

mental wellbeing

There’s a lot that feels out of control right now. City and school re-openings are in limbo, and life for many still feels upended. But one thing we can control is our efforts to safeguard our family’s digital and mental health.

Both adults and kids use television, tablets, and smartphones more these days for both school and entertainment. According to a study by Axios, children’s screen time during the pandemic is surging by as much 50 to 60 percent putting screen time for children 12 and younger at nearly five hours or more per day. Another study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research indicates people’s mental health has worsened during the Coronavirus.

Priority: Family Wellbeing

It’s clear this season has impacted all ages in myriad ways and put the spotlight on the importance of digital and mental health. Here are some resources and tips to help strengthen both.

Keep structure in-tact. Experts agree that establishing a daily structure is the best way to keep family life as healthy as possible right now. Scheduling set times for learning, chores, exercise, mealtimes, screen time, and connecting with peers in online hangouts, is essential. Safe Online: Establishing structure may be easier with software that also helps limit screen time, monitor activity, and filter apps and websites.DigitalWellbeing

Clarify the news. Kids pick up on everything, both true and untrue. They often collect bits and pieces of “news” from TV, overhearing adults, or fragments of stories from peers, all of which can increase anxiety. Safe Online: Parents can help ease the fear caused by misinformation by (age-appropriately) updating children with facts on current events and helping them understand the context of what they see online or on television. 

Encourage connection. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. If your child seems lonely or isolated, help pull them back into the mix. If they can’t meet in a safe, socially-distanced setting with friends face-to-face, allow extra time on Messenger Rooms or Zoom to group chat with peers or relatives. Safe Online: Keep kids safe by using privacy settings in video apps and always supervise young children. 

Keep device use in check. Yes, we’re all on devices more, but that doesn’t greenlight a device-free for all. Balance (pandemic or not) is always the aim of managing digital and mental health. Consider putting away devices during mealtime, before bedtime, and even challenge each other to go phone and screen-free one full day a week. Safe Online: Check your phone usage stats on your devices daily or use software to track it for you. 

Get moving. Squeezing in even 15-30 minutes of exercise a day alters our biochemical and hormonal balance and reduces mood swings, fatigue, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness. Safe Online: If you use mobile fitness apps, maximize your privacy settings, read app terms to understand how the app tracks your health data.

Parent self-care. “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” is a simple but powerful sentiment these days. Unplugging, turning off the news, and resting or meditating can turn a stressful day around. Safe Online: Minimize scrolling mindlessly online or engaging in online conflict. Modeling balanced digital habits is self-care and is a powerful way to help your child do the same. 

Family Resources Online

Consider online resources. To meet the demand of families at home, most insurance plans now offer online counseling. Also, surprisingly, Instagram is becoming a mental health hub. As worry continues around finances, job loss, health, and the impact of isolation, meeting with a counselor or therapist 1-1 online may be an easy, useful solution. To get started, do a hashtag search for #FamilyCounseling #Marriage #Counselling #Therapy #Stress #Anxiety or a profile search with the same keywords. Safe Online: Vet online counselors and therapists to make sure they are licensed and not part of an online scam.

MHA resources. Mental Health America has compiled an impressive range of resources and information for people in need of services such as domestic and child abuse, drug and alcohol issues, financial issues, suicide, depression, and LGBTQ issues. The site houses endless blogs and on-demand webinars specific to Coronavirus and family mental health issues.

As this season of uncertainty continues, it’s important to remember you are not alone. Everyone is feeling all the feelings, and no one has things like structure and balance mastered. But, we’re all getting wiser each day simply by committing to protecting the things that matter most.

The post  Ways to Strengthen Your Family’s Digital and Mental Wellbeing appeared first on McAfee Blogs.

Messenger Rooms: New Video Chat Option is Fun But Has Risks

Messenger Rooms

Messenger RoomsOne of the many things we’ve learned during this season of being homebound is that video chats with friends can save the day. One of the newest channels for video chatting is Messenger Rooms. While the new Facebook feature isn’t groundbreaking in terms of how it works, it’s the ability to pull together a big group of friends spontaneously that may make this a popular digital hangout for kids.

The Basics

Messenger Rooms functions similarly to the popular video conferencing app Zoom. The exception: There’s no need for users (or guests) to download a new app, create an account, or send out pre-planned meeting invites.

Messenger Rooms is simple. One person sets up a Messenger Room, that Room is assigned a URL, the organizer sends his or her friends that link, and those friends can instantly click it and be in the room. With so many families still opting to avoid large gatherings, Rooms may be the next best way to socialize in the most organic, pre-pandemic way.

The app makes it easy to watch movies together since one user screen can be pinned to the top of the chat for shared viewing. Kids can also have game nights, birthday parties, organize workout and study groups, or have a “squad hangout” as the Room title options call out (see graphic, below).

The Fun 

A few specific features may make Messenger Rooms appealing to kids. First, it’s easy to drop friends a link and be together almost instantly in a private room. Messenger Rooms is free, doesn’t have time limits, and up to 50 friends can get together in one room — from anywhere in the world. Kids joining a Room from their mobile app can apply quirky filters to their backgrounds or faces, which brings in the creativity element they get from Instagram Stories and Snapchat.

The Risks

Privacy. So far, privacy seems to be the biggest concern being raised and here’s why. Messenger Rooms, like Facebook, collects metadata from users — including guests without Facebook accounts. Metadata may include the people you talk with, at what times, and how often, all of which can be shared with a third party. Also, Messenger Rooms, while it does not record calls (like Zoom), lacks end-to-end encryption, which makes the channel vulnerable to hackers and compromises private conversations.

Troublemakers. Live chat rooms are not password-protected, so if a Room organizer decides to make a Room public or fails to lock a room they intended to be private, anyone can pop in and do anything. Much like the Zoom bombers emerging, anyone could crash a meeting with racial rants or graphic content. A link to a room can also be shared with others by anyone who has the link.

Cyberbullying. As with any app, conflicts can arise as can cyberbullying or harassment.

The Conversation

If you notice your kids using Messenger Rooms, you may consider having a few conversations that highlight the risks.

  • Privacy settings. If you organize a Room, lock it to keep unwanted people from crashing your meet up.
  • Nothing is private. Messenger Rooms isn’t encrypted, so it’s not the place to have private conversations or share sensitive content. Note: The internet in any form isn’t the place to share any personal content. Anything exchanged online — even a “private” text between two people — is vulnerable to hackers, device theft, or the possibility of a relationship falling out.
  • Nothing is free. Remind your children that services online are free for a reason. There is always an exchange: Free use for data. Be aware that profile information and bits of a conversation could be mined and used by a third party. To understand better how data is collected, Facebook’s help center or data policy.
  • Lock your room. Unless your child adjusts his or her preferences, it will be open to anyone that person is friends with on Facebook who will see the public Room at the top of their newsfeed. That means lovable Uncle Pete may mistakenly stumble into your daughter’s “squad” rant unless the Room is locked.
  • Report and block. If an unwanted person disrupts a Room kids can block the user and report it to Facebook.
  • Age-appropriate options. For kids under 13 (Facebook age requirement), there’s Messenger Kids, a Facebook feature that allows younger kids to video call with friends in a parentally-supervised room. It’s a great tool for teaching kids safe, online practices before they use the real thing.

To stay ahead of the digital hangouts available to kids, visit McAfee Consumer Family Safety blogs each week. You may also consider monitoring your child’s devices with parental controls designed to filter content, monitor screen time, and track new apps.

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