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Back-to-school tech tips for parents

Heading back to school is much easier if your child feels well-prepared ( Mary Taylor)
Heading back to school is much easier if your child feels well-prepared ( Mary Taylor)

The summer holiday is drawing to a close and, like any good parent, you’re ready to send the kids back to school in blazers that are two sizes too big for them. But even if their uniform is ready, are you confident that their gadgets are safe?

A return to school often coincides with kids getting phones for the first time, computers to help them with their studies, and a barrage of new apps to deal with for monitoring homework or reporting illness.

Here’s how to get all of these gizmos into the best possible shape for the start of the school year. Following these ideas should give you one less thing to worry about when you pack them off for the first day of term.

How to track your child’s phone?

Parents often give kids their first phone when they make the jump to secondary school and travel back and forth by themselves for the first time. If you want to be able to check that your child arrived at school safely – or if they’re still there because they forgot to tell you about an after-school sports club – you can unobtrusively track the location of both iPhones and Android handsets.

With Apple phones, you can track family members’ devices using the Find My app on any Mac, iPhone or iPad. For Android phones, you can use the Find My Device service. You’ll find full instructions on how to set up location tracking on iPhone and Android here.

It’s wise to tell your children that you’re tracking their phone location for their own protection –  and maybe make it a condition for them to have a phone in the first place. Pointing out that it might help them locate a lost device might swing the argument in your favour.

Silence the phone during school time

Most schools, especially secondary schools, will now tolerate children carrying mobile phones. What they don’t allow is phones ringing or chirping during lessons. If you want to avoid a detention in the first week back, show them how to silence the phone during school time.

An effective way to do this is with the Do Not Disturb facility that you’ll find in the settings of both iPhones and Android devices. You can activate Do Not Disturb on a schedule – say between 9am and 3pm every weekday – so that the phone doesn’t ring or ping notification alerts during those hours.

It’s a great way to avoid those excruciating moments when the child forgets to silence the phone before entering the classroom and has their device confiscated or worse. And it doesn’t stop them from using the device during break times.

Watch out for WhatsApp groups

New classes, new mates, new WhatsApp groups: it’s the law of the modern jungle. But just be wary of your children joining huge classes, or even year-wide WhatsApp groups. First, the volume of messages in such groups can be overwhelming, meaning that your child is constantly glued to the phone to make sure they’re not missing out. Worse, they’re often a source of bullying and ‘pile-ons’, which can cause distress.

This is a tough line to draw. On the one hand, you don’t want them to be the only kid in the class who’s missing out; on the other, it’s a potential trouble spot. Discuss the matter with your child and see if you can reach a compromise of waiting or at least restricting group chats to tight friendship groups where bullying is less likely to occur.

Better still, avoid allowing them to have the app whatsoever until they are at least aged 13. After all, this is the minimum age in the terms and conditions. Alternative chat-based apps, such as Discord, do provide more granular controls over group permission but also tend to emphasise group voice calls, which bring their own risks. Ultimately, though, most kids simply want to be where their friends are, which is why What’s App is so popular – because it’s platform agnostic for iPhone or Android handsets.

How to keep a computer safe for children

If you’re buying a new laptop for the kids to tackle their homework with, it definitely pays to do your own homework first. Especially when it comes to setting up the computer in the first place.

The key thing for any computer that you are giving to a child, or even just letting them use, is not to allow them to use the main ‘admin’ account. This gives them the ability to install software, change passwords and potentially tamper with parental control settings (if they know the login password). Instead, set them up with a child account. This gives you far greater control over what they can do on the device but also makes it much harder for viruses and other malware to do serious damage to the computer.

More than anything, make sure you read The Standard’s free guide on how to set up child accounts on both Windows and Macs.

Using school apps without getting into trouble

A new school year almost inevitably means new apps for parents to monitor homework or report sickness and so forth. Schools tend to rotate these apps with irritating regularity, often because the introductory first-year offers they’re offered become unaffordable in year two.

The problem is that these apps contain highly personal information about your children and yet their security can often be sub-standard even in terms of the basic setup process. It’s not uncommon for the school to send out both the username and password to parents in the same email (which is a terrible security practice) or not force you to change those default passwords. This means that anyone who gets access to your inbox could potentially get very sensitive information on your child too.

When registering with such apps for the first time, use the settings to change the password yourself, even if the app doesn’t force you to do so – and make sure to use a strong password.

How to beat the other parents to bookings

This one’s a bit ‘competitive parent’ and yet it’s incredibly useful. Many after-school activities or parents-evening slots are booked on websites that open at a very specific time. And you can guarantee that if you turn up five minutes late, all the best activities or slots are long gone.

To make sure you’re ready as soon as a booking website opens, first set yourself a reminder in a calendar app for ten minutes before the allocated opening time. Then, if you use the Chrome or Edge browsers, download the Easy Auto Refresh extension.

With this installed, you simply click on the extension’s icon at the top of the browser screen and set it to automatically refresh the page every few seconds. Keep your eye on the screen and you should be one of the first through the door when the booking site opens, letting you reserve a slot for the karate club or book those plum parents-evening appointments. You might laugh now but you’ll be thankful for this soon enough.