By Kim Boatman

These days, kids tote more than backpacks, lunches and homework when they head to school. Chances are your student carries a cell phone — and he or she may also take a laptop or a USB drive to school.

Kids typically are quite capable of figuring out technology that leaves us baffled, but they need help handling the responsibility of carrying tech devices. So what happens when your student, who’s been known to lose the occasional sweatshirt and homework assignment, leaves the family laptop on the school bus? And how do you keep a cell phone safe in the hands of a kid who is accident-prone? Here’s how to both protect your kid’s gear and information and educate him or her about proper care.

Laptops

  • Choose a solid-state drive. If your young student is going to be carrying a laptop, consider paying more for a solid-state hard drive, says Thomas K. McCabe, president of HeroTechs Inc., a computer service company based in Long Island, N.Y. “With a laptop that’s got a solid-state drive, there’s no moving parts except for the fans for air flow,” he advises. Laptops with spinning disk drives don’t hold up well to repeated bumps-and-thumps when they’re moved around or placed a bit roughly on a desk or counter. You also may want to invest in a rugged laptop or a laptop with a spill-proof keyboard.
  • Pick a smaller screen. Don Cardwell — owner of Wireless Unlimited, a tech repair company in Jonesborough, Tenn. — receives repair jobs involving broken screens from around the country. He advises choosing a laptop with a smaller screen or even a small netbook to minimize the risk of damage.
  • Use security protection. Install reputable antivirus and malware protection and make sure the program is updated regularly. Kids often engage in online behavior that puts laptops at risk for viruses and other damaging programs. Educate your child about visiting suspicious websites and opening attachments or links.
  • Provide proper protection. Purchase a protective cover for the laptop and have your child transport it in a laptop bag, advises Cardwell. “Throwing it in with hardback books, pens and pencils, you’re creating all these points of impact,” he says. “You run a high risk of damaging that equipment when you’re transporting it back and forth.”
  • Keep your information protected. If you share the laptop with your child, at the very least you’ll want to password-protect your information in a separate user account. Consider storing the information on an external hard drive.

Cell phones

  • Buy a case or skin. A little extra protection can go a long way toward absorbing the shock of a fall, says McCabe.
  • Keep it out of pockets. The pattern Cardwell sees is all too familiar. Girls ruin phone screens by carrying their phones in their back pockets. Boys ruin screens by carrying the phones in their front pockets. Have your child carry his or her phone in a case or pouch or on a belt clip.
  • Avoid loss. Consider installing software on your child’s phone that lets you track or lock the phone if it’s lost. This is especially helpful if your child is prone to losing things or if the phone is particularly pricey.
  • Warn against risk behavior. Remind your kids to be careful when they’re talking with friends or surfing the Internet on their phones. Malware, phishing and sexual predators are risks when using a smartphone just as they are when using a PC.

USB drives

  • Buy an encrypted drive. USB drives are inexpensive, so it’s the data that often has value. If your child is simply carrying a school report, you’re likely fine without an unencrypted drive. However, if your older student is carrying his or her art portfolio and there’s a danger someone else could pass that work off as theirs, it’s worth paying an extra $15 or so for an encrypted drive. With an encrypted drive, a password protects the data.

Some best practices apply to every device. No matter which type of gadget your child uses, teach him or her how to manage the charger and charging port, notes Cardwell. Charger ports are frequently damaged through yanking and tugging on the charger. Consider labeling or etching the device with contact information, which may help with recovery of a lost or stolen gadget. Evaluate whether insuring the device is a good deal.

This is also an opportunity to teach your child lifelong lessons about technology. Tell them to always back up data elsewhere, and to never let their tech gear out of sight. “I tell my kids to keep their electronics with them at all times,” McCabe says. “Keep your stuff with you.”

Kim Boatman is a Silicon Valley, Calif., journalist who writes about security and technology. She spent more than 15 years writing about a variety of topics for the San Jose Mercury News.

 

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