Parents: Beware The Zombies (Phones, That Is)!

When cellphones made their introduction into the market, they were only capable of audio transmissions (calls). Technology increased, opening up the opportunity for texting and eventually, video transmission. Today’s smart phones are so different from their ancestors that I don’t even refer to them as phones, but as portable computers that are capable of telecommunications.

zombie hand holding phone

New 5G phones work at speeds of 300 Mbps – fast enough to stream video calls, YouTube videos or even movies from Netflix, Hulu or any other service. The difference in speed is only one difference between the two generations. The way they transmit data has also changed. Dramatically.

No longer dependent on a service provider and access to cell towers to transmit data, these portable computers only need access to Wifi to be virtually 100% equal to a phone that has phone service.

In mid-August of this year, a story went viral about a teenager named Dorothy who was punished by her mom for not paying attention to the stove, resulting in a fire. The punishment, if the story is to be believed (there is some doubt) goes that her mom took away all of her devices, leaving the girl cut off from her online life. Not to be outsmarted by her mom, Dorothy was able to access WiFi capable devices, even sending out a tweet from her refrigerator! Shortly afterwards, #FreeDorothy started trending online.

Teenagers are Digital Natives. They grew up with technology. Even at pre-school, they may have been using technology on a daily basis. I didn’t get to use my first computer until I was a high school sophomore and it was about the size of my current car. Today’s middle school children are likely to have a computer in their pocket that is more powerful than the Cray supercomputers from decades ago that only the elite could use.

And they’re virtually addicted to them. In a 2015 study conducted by CNN called Being 13: Inside the Secret World of Teens, one young girl stated that she might take as many as 200 selfies just to get the “right” one that is good enough to post online. She wasn’t alone in showing just how engrained social media had become to her generation.

Even if Dorothy’s story is untrue, it still illustrates the degree to which technology has become an integrated part of our daily lives. It’s in places we’d never expect and is capable of doing things that would surprise most people, including parents. As a result, any inactive phone that is capable of using WiFi can be used to go online, access social media accounts, or send texts and emails. That’s a zombie phone.

In fact, with apps like WhatsApp, the calling app owned by Facebook, they can even create a unique phone number and continue to make calls. While watching a cybersafety program delivered by a local police department, the detective told us how he got a phone call on his personal phone, but he didn’t recognize the number. He was amazed to hear his grade school aged daughter on the other end, who explained that she downloaded WhatsApp on her tablet and called her dad.

Taking away a child’s devices might be done for any reason, including doing something inappropriate online or offline. In theory, it’s a punishment that should stop a child from getting online, but the reality is very different. Restricting a child’s access to their phones might have no real effect on their ability to go online. With so many homes and businesses having WiFi, any device that can use WiFi can get them back online. That includes desktop computers, laptops, tablets and inactive portable computers that are capable of telecommunications.

While at home, parents can see who is using their WiFi without their knowledge. Outside of the home is another matter entirely. Many businesses, restaurants, public libraries and the like offer free WiFi as a way to encourage people to spend more time there. In addition to providing a child with the opportunity to “get around their parent’s decision to keep them offline for a time”, using open/public WiFi also opens the device to viruses and malware. While that may not be a concern for an old, inactive phone, it also might put their account information at risk too, including passwords and even credit card information.

So what does all this mean for parents?

The solution is not an easy one. Many children may already have zombie phones and their parents may never know about them. Certainly, if this is a concern to a parent, they should take older phones from their children with each upgrade so that they no longer remain in their possession.

Another way to see if children are using zombie devices is to check their social media accounts. Parents should not just assume that their kids are not able to get online once their devices have been “removed”, so there’s no need to check on their online activity. With schools back in session now, they will most likely have access on school devices as well as using zombie devices with a school’s WiFi, so keep that in mind.

Learning what technology is capable of doing and involvement with our kids’ online lives is the best way to be keep them safe. That may not sound simple and in fact, it’s not, but our kids are worth it. Learning what technology is capable of doing is the easy part. Getting the kids to open up to their parents is the hard part. However, in an article I wrote here for Pediatric Safety last June, I showed parents ways to help get kids to open up to them. Try it for yourself and you should see a difference.

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for more than 10 years. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that he became involved in helping others in the area. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention. Joe is the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016. Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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