Lancaster University project looks at how kids can stay safe in an online world

Photo Neil Cross
Bran Knowles at Lancaster University, where they are conducting a year long study on new technology and how that impacts children's privacy and security.Photo Neil Cross
Bran Knowles at Lancaster University, where they are conducting a year long study on new technology and how that impacts children's privacy and security.
Photo Neil Cross Bran Knowles at Lancaster University, where they are conducting a year long study on new technology and how that impacts children's privacy and security.
In the lead up to international Safer Internet Day (February 6) reporter Gemma Sherlock speaks to Lancaster University researchers who are studying how kids can keep their privacy online.

The cute, fluffy, pink teddy ready to give your child a hug may not be what it seems. Their new found love with the tech-savvy toy could be putting them through potentially harmful risks.

Researchers at Lancaster University are exploring how children can stay safe and retain their privacy as they engage with devices that connect to the internet.

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Their year-long project, ‘Child Proofing the Internet of Things,’ comes as the nation marks international Safer Internet Day, which promotes the safe and responsible use of online technology and mobile phones, especially for children and young people.

“Because we want future generations to be computer literate and to have a better range of core programming skills, children are encouraged to interact with programmable devices,” said Dr Bran Knowles, Lancaster University Lecturer in Data Science and the principal investigator of the project.

“Many of these devices have great functionality that requires them to be connected to the internet.

“However this could potentially cause concerns around the privacy and security of the children using these devices.”

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The university study looks at the Internet of Things (also known as IoT): the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.

As technology progresses more and more devices can be used to connect to the internet.

Traditional toys are now connected, these include voice and image recognition toys and app-enabled robots and drones.

“It is like when you have just learnt your bank account is hacked, it is a new threat, we are trying to get ahead of the predators as technology is expanding,” said Dr Knowles.

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“With the Internet of Things there are a lot of controllable toys, if that is hacked by someone it is not necessarily immediately obvious to a child that they are not talking to a toy anymore that they are talking to a predator.”

Dr Knowles and co-investigator of the study, Joe Finney are working alongside partners from the NSPCC, the Family Online Safety Institute, and the Micro:Bit Educational Foundation, to explore the issues.

Schemes to help ensure future generations of digital innovators include the creation of the BBC micro:bit, a micro controller with in-built sensors, such as compass and accelerometer, Bluetooth connectivity and pins that enable it to be connected to external sensors and other devices.

The developers of the micro:bit took an ethical approach to developing their device – purposefully restricting some functions, such as disabling internet connectivity, restricting radio communication, and strengthening security around others, such as Bluetooth pairing, due to concerns around safety and privacy of children users.

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However, as many other current, and potentially future, devices can connect to the internet, researchers are keen to learn more about how so called IoT devices could affect the privacy and security of young people.

The research team ran workshops with Year 5 and 6 pupils from St Bernadette’s Church and Primary School in Lancaster.

“Some of the girls wanted to build a teddy that can offer companionship, to give them a hug and there are some ways you can simulate that using the micro:bit,” said Dr Knowles.

“But you are offering your vulnerabilities out there, you don’t want your child to build a trusted relationship, to have an emotional bond with that toy as a predator could use it to there advantage.”

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Dr Knowles has also personally come into contact with how children can easily access the online world.

She said: “With my son, when he was one he was already navigating YouTube by himself on the iPad, it is a different sort of freedom I had.

“I am a fair parent, there is not a lot he can’t access but there was one website I was a bit unsure of how he got to it.

“When you have got a child that loves to explore it is important to be concerned about their privacy.”

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The ‘Child Proofing the Internet of Things’ project has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) via the PETRAS IoT Hub.

By working with groups of children to find out the ways they would use IoT devices, and then working with child protection experts, the research aims to:

- Discover the likely privacy and security challenges arising from children using IoT devices

- Find out what design and programming considerations are needed to provide greater protection

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- What guidelines and advice is needed for children, their families and teachers for programming IoT device.

Micro:bit devices will be a key focus of the project, and the educational tool will help shed light on broader implications associated with children and all programmable IoT devices.

Gareth James, Chief of Education and Strategy at the Micro:Bit Educational Foundation, said: “Students today need to prepare themselves for the huge variety of career options and challenges ahead.

“Connectivity means many people will be able to work from, or create business anywhere.

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“Adaptability is vital – 65 per cent of today’s reception children will need skills for jobs that don’t exist yet and the average Briton will work in six different job roles spanning six different companies in their working life.

“There is a massive demand for digital competencies and skills, therefore it is vital that students are digitally adept otherwise they will miss out.

“We can support that by ensuring effective research is put in place now, in order to protect the privacy and security and safety of young people.”

Andy Burrows, NSPCC’s Associate Head of Child Safety Online, said: “This innovative project will help shape our understanding of how internet devices will be used by young people; knowledge we greatly need in today’s online world.

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“As ever greater numbers of children start to use internet-connected toys and web-enabled household devices, it is crucial that we better understand the implications for child safety.

“This research will build our understanding of the privacy, security and safety implications for children, parents and policymakers, and we are pleased to be able to support it.”

Lancashire County Council will support the fourth international Safer Internet Day (SID) on Tuesday February 6.

The global theme for this year’s event is ‘Create, Connect and Share Respect’, and focuses on the part we all play in helping to create a safer internet.

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County Councillor Peter Buckley, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for community and cultural services, said: “Safer Internet Day gives us a valuable opportunity to remind everyone about how to keep children and young people safe online.

“This includes parents, carers and those who work with children and young people.

“This day also lets us raise awareness of child sexual exploitation (CSE), and offers advice on identifying when exploitation may be taking place and how to report it.

“Although young people today are digitally savvy, they also need to be reminded about how to protect their privacy and their personal information online, and just how important this is.

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“I’m sure we all appreciate just how quickly technology changes and we need to do all we can to help to keep young people safe.”

Supporters in Lancashire will be encouraged to learn more about how to stay safe and create good relationships online. Online quizzes will be available on all the public computers in libraries.

People will also be encouraged to take part in an online ‘Learn My Way’ course about online safety.

The course includes information about scams, keeping your information secure online and staying safe when using the internet.

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The ways that are available to report possible child exploitation will also be highlighted.

Safer Internet Day is run by the UK Safer Internet Centre, a partnership involving the South West Grid for Learning, Childnet International and the Internet Watch Foundation.

More information about the event is available at

You can go online in Lancashire’s libraries to complete the online quiz, or to find out more about the day.