Are UMPCs Safe for Kids and Teens?

Following the press coverage and discussions of the UMPC, one topic that is brought up pretty frequently is how useful these devices could be for students. The emphasis on these discussions is usually on the note-taking features of the Tablet PC operating system. The portability of the UMPC makes it seem rather optimal for carrying to and from school and from class to class. Microsoft even offers a free education pack for Tablet PCs that provides a number of useful tools for students. This can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website and even comes pre-installed on the TabletKiosk eo.

Anyone who follows the news is likely at least somewhat aware of the many recent stories about the dangers that kids face on the Internet. While the Internet has opened up a whole new world of both learning and socialization for kids, it also has introduced significant dangers ranging from targeted marketing to easy access to inappropriate (even pornographic) content all the way up to the risk of contact with child predators. Social networking sites like MySpace.com have become immensely popular with the younger population, making these sites particularly attractive targets.

Child safety online is a topic that I have taken a lot of interest in, both as the father of a toddler that I realize will grow up with the Internet as a key part of his life and also as a software engineer that has spent a large portion of my career working on online products largely targeted to younger audiences. PC Magazine recently published an excellent article entitled Do you Know Where Your Child Is Clicking? In this article, they outlined how quickly and easily a great deal of personal information about a child can be obtained simply by following up on information in personal web pages and online profiles that may initially seem to be very vague. Even kids and teens that seem to be generally cautious could still be setting themselves up for exploitation, thus requiring a great deal of parental vigilance and oversight of the young person’s online activities.

A primary recommendation in this article, which I have found to be consistent in most articles of this type, is for parents to not to give privacy while their children are using the Internet. Kids and teens should instead only use connected computers that are kept in a common area of the home where the parents or other family members are likely to be present. It also is recommended that the parents maintain primary control over the computers, including full administrative rights. These goals strongly conflict with the personal and portable focus of current UMPCs.

Connectivity is generally considered to be one of the primary functions of a UMPC. Wi-fi, Bluetooth, and/or cellular networking have been standard, built-in features of nearly every UMPC so far. The only significant exception has been the DualCor and its expected lack of built-in connectivity has been its most widely-mentioned criticism, leading DualCor to heavily emphasize the availability of add-on cards. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a wi-fi and/or Bluetooth add-on card is standard in the box, once these units are released.

DualCor’s target audience is obviously business-people and I strongly doubt that student use was a motivation in this design choice, but perhaps they are actually on to something with this modular approach to connectivity. A UMPC that does not have any built-in connectivity could be given to a student to use for note taking and other simple computing tasks at school, the library, or even in his/her own room. The parent could then retain control of the connectivity module; only allowing the child/teen to use those features when appropriately supervised. The smartest design would likely be to include the connectivity features only in a docking station that would allow the UMPC to actually be the system that is used in a common area within the home.

While I can absolutely see the value of a UMPC for student use, I also think that parents need to take into consideration the risks involved. In their current form, I really don’t believe that, in most cases, a UMPC is appropriate for anyone younger than college age. Hopefully UMPC makers, and Microsoft, will take note and soon consider creation of UMPCs that have better safety controls for use by children and teens.

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