Keeping Information Security Simple – Am I Smarter than a Sixth Grader? – Protecting our Families Online

Letter from the CISO, Vol 2 Issue 7

Washington University Community:

Am I Smarter than a Sixth Grader?

I like to think so, but the evidence suggests otherwise. At least when it comes to figuring out how to limit the trouble my young nieces can get into on their mobile devices.

Yes, their mother, father, and I all worked very hard to set up the vendors’ “parental controls.”

And, yes, we had serious conversations about the appropriate use of the devices, ranging from the scary and malicious actors they might meet online to the problems of game addiction, the nastiness of social media, and the resulting damage to self-image and mental health.

And still, they keep breaking the rules, finding ways around screen time limitations, and spending way too much time on Snapchat! One of my friends says that if she could change one thing in the world, she would get rid of Snapchat! I empathize, but silly content and addiction to media are platform-independent problems.

Kids Just Want to Have Fun!

Most kids want to play the fun new game all their friends are talking about at school or check out the latest social media star who is making everyone laugh.

For better or worse, most kids use the same device for school as they use for communication with parents and recreational activities.

The kids are very clever and are able to talk at length about the latest YouTube videos from the Green brothers, Hank and John, which really are educational and entertaining. In the end, they very well might convince you that they should have more screen time because it is so important to their development and well-being.

How do you keep them from breaking the rules?

Rule number one: Never, ever, ever, let them have your Apple, Google, device, or Screen Time passwords or passcodes! This sounds easier than it is. Kids can be excellent at patiently watching you enter your code whenever they have a legitimate need for a Screen Time exception. They may not get it all at once. They may get just one number at a time or narrow down each number to a small set, until they have enough to guess the rest. [Please excuse me for being iPhone-specific with some of these tips. Androids have many similar features.]

Rule number two: Complete all the setup steps for any security feature. For example, it is easy to forget to enable “Block at Downtime” after setting up a downtime schedule. If you forget this critical step, kids can simply tap “Ignore Limit” and keep playing. My niece wasn’t bothered by having to do this every minute, so long as she could keep playing.

Rule number three: Make rules that require good behavior instead of ones that ban bad behavior. One of my sons was the best at figuring out the loopholes in any rules we created. It was (almost) hilarious. My wife and I tried very hard to implement rules designed to set an expectation of demonstrated responsible behaviors, thereby building trust. I don’t think we were very successful, and certainly not all the time, but the kids are all gainfully employed and seemingly well adjusted, so I’ll call that a win.

Internet Distractions to Share with Your Children

I admit to having spent too many hours watching the Green Brothers—see their Vlogbrothers’ channel ( and, in particular, the “World History”, “Biology,” “Crash Course,” and “SciShow” shows. I recommend checking them out. Maybe it would be fun to have your children show them to you. I also recommend the videos on the Khan Academy by the Mathemusician Vi Hart. See for a wonderful example.

Yes, I was an economics and mathematics major as an undergrad, and I still geek out a bit over a good explanation of a mathematical concept or a wonderful math or economics joke.

Thanks to Julie Jargon of the Wall Street Journal for some of the ideas shared in this letter, particularly at

And, thank you again for reading and being members of the University’s Information Security team!

Good luck and be careful out there!

-Chris Shull, CISO