QR Codes and Kids’ Safety

An example of a QR code generator. Input your address and it will provide the digital barcodes. Parents need to think about kids' safety when these see these.
Very Easy to Make a QR Code- What about Kids’ Safety Using Them?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it wrong to wonder why there is a QR code on the back of a kid’s cereal box? My four year old and six year old insist on using my phone when they eat breakfast now because they want to follow the code, play a game, and reveal some treasure. I am worried about these QR Codes and kids’ safety. Why can’t they just print directions on the box instead of making them go to a website with my phone?! Noelle, Strawberry

Dear Noelle:  It doesn’t sound like a nutritious way to begin the day. QR codes, aka Quick Response codes, help machines efficiently connect to humans. They don’t belong at anyone’s breakfast table. I personally use them when there is simply not an alternative, like on a printed airline ticket or a “contactless” menu.

Put simply, QR codes are a two-dimensional version of bar codes. Information is encoded in an image using vertical lines of different thicknesses. The Wall St. Journal recently had a “go to” article, extolling their two-dimensional properties.   A scanner is used to send up to 4000 binary digits (0/1) of information embedded in the QR code and a computer at the other end recovers the message, and can make error corrections as needed.  Mathematically, it’s a genius invention. The QR code has been in use for nearly thirty years, beginning with the Japanese inventory of factory parts.

Outside the Box

Today, QR codes have been in the news as they have been proposed to encode information about when you take your Covid vaccine, which dosages, and where administered. The problem I have is that I cannot see what is encoded in the protocol. While it is probably no different than the little scribbles made by health practitioners on the vaccination card I carry, I have no way of knowing if say, they mixed up the dates,  my name, or something else.  And, I will never know the metadata it might carry about me, my phone, the GPS settings, or more. 

There’s not much risk when your kids scan the code on your breakfast cereal, but I would hate to have kids clamoring early in the morning to play with my phone. Since 2017, a QR scanner has been built into the iOS phone camera. The QR code will not go away: your kids might need to use it on field trips to museums and when they view outdoor exhibits.

Question and Review (Q/R)

QR codes present greater risk if you are not on a school field trip, or out and about, and you scan a random QR code printed on a rogue menu, or an ad, say promoting a work-from-home scheme. Or, more vulnerable, a sticker with a QR code promises an interesting social event. You can never be sure what site those linkages are going to send you ro and if they can open up your phone’s settings.

We are all getting more informed and aware of the ways that our phones can spy on us, and how we need to lock them down. So, while a QR code saves us from having to first remember, and then say carry a vaccine card, or type in a long web address, efficiency is not always the best response. Certainly, not when it comes to boxes of breakfast cereal although it does lend a “high tech” crunch to that brand. Perhaps the cereal company might enjoy hearing from you!

Lots of  new symbols- the QR codes, emojis, hashtags, and the @ sign are all becoming a new vernacular, and they aid person- to -machine communications. The QR code is the most advanced of these, and at the same time, the most opaque.

Restrict Time on Video Games?

A cartoon of a little Asian child in front of a very large monitor with a game remote control in hand
Limit Time on Video Games? Image: debate.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My cousins live in Asia and the government there has decided to restrict the time that kids can play video games. Now my grandparents are suggesting that it is a good idea for me and I should limit my time on video games like them. I live in the same household as my grandparents. I only play after I do my homework and on the weekends. Usually it is when I get together with kids from my school. I am in tenth grade.  Lucas, S. San Francisco

Dear Lucas: Apropos to your question, I read that the Chinese government said “video games are like opium for the mind.” It makes me curious. Was it a political agenda, research from mental health, or sheer hubris that led to this decree? We may never know. We do know that young boys spend a lot of time on video games and Pew Research reports that  four-in-ten boys ages 13 to 17 (41%) say they spend too much time playing video games, four times the share of girls who say the same (11%).

The Chinese ban is not new: China was one of the first countries to recognize the potential for addiction to the Internet, video games, and other digital media, and was the first country to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. In 2019 kids were allowed 1.5 hours of gaming on weekdays. The new decree limits gaming to 3 hours per week, from 8p.m. to 9p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The interesting issue is how the government will enforce it: one way might be at the router- might it disconnect after three hours of play? Young people will need to log in with their real names and will have limited opportunity to buy microtokens. ”Farmers,” the players who mine the games for in-game currency, will need to be over the age of 18!

To me, limiting time is a thoughtful concept, but it is parents and kids who should make this decision. You did not say how much time you currently play. Note that each hour you spend on video games is an hour that you forfeit doing something else. On a particularly day, that is not huge, but over many days- it grows to be an alarming number. During the recent Tokyo Olympics it was reported that those athletes spend about 10,000 hours at their sport before making it to an Olympic team. That’s just 3.5 hours a day over ten years!

Not So Good, Not So Bad

That said, many educators in the U.S. believe that video games have positive benefits: they help develop skills like hand-to-eye coordination, speedy reaction times, strategic thinking, and puzzle solving.  It is also an activity, a walled off space, where you socialize with friends.  It’s a social thing, particularly when it’s played on larger consoles with others in the room. In China, the norm might seem less sociable if the gaming takes place in arcades or alone on a mobile phone.

While young boys thrive on these games, there is a belief, held by a majority of adults in the U.S., that the amount of gun violence in video games contributes to a “great deal or a fair amount” of gun violence.  82% of people age 65 and older hold this opinion, and your grandparents might be in that age cohort! Their causal inference could be wrong. 

Play it WITH Grandpa!

Perhaps kids who are lonely and emotionally unhinged,  seek out video games. Was that the rationale in China to limit games? We don’t know. Officially, I have read there was concern about poor eyesight (myopia), college readiness, and protecting kids’ physical and mental health.  Be able to sidestep these concerns when you talk with your grandparents! 

That said, are there multi generational video games that you can make your grandparents take an interest in, or share an online language-tool?  One option is to show them how Roblox Studio works, and create a new game personalized with their input. You may be able to convince them that your programming skill and their creativity will be your ticket to engineering school.

Private Instagram Account for Kids?

A cartoon of kids looking at Instagram site but also checking their age as they might be too young to be online. From TechCrunch.
Private Instagram Account for Kids? Image: Bryce Durbin, Techcrunch- 2019

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I read that Instagram might allow kids under age 13 to get online, providing their accounts are private. My ten year old is asking me to set up an account for him like this, and I am undecided. He is a good student and helps me a lot with my other kids who are too young to be online. Alison, Daly City

Dear Alison: Ten year old boys like to play video games on consoles and big monitors and they can’t do that privately, out of site. We might learn from them how to jump into social media. As a parent you need to see literally what is going on. You may not enjoy the warfare in some of those video games or the sound blasts from Reels but at least you will be present.

If you let you ten year old set up this Instagram account it has the advantage, as I have written earlier, of being a “provisional account.” Think of it like a learner’s permit for young drivers . You will have access to his postings and can see what is going on. The downside is that it will also be a walled garden. Other young friends that he shares with will presumably have private accounts too. You, the parent will not necessarily have access to these, since they are locked down. Importantly, you cannot assume that other parents will be as conscientious as you, and provide regular oversight of their tweens’ posts.


I have a further issue with private accounts as they “violate” a principle of social media, which is to share things as community. Let’s say that your son posts an unflattering picture of a girl in his classroom. You may casually dismiss it, but the photo is tagged and another classmate innocently reposts this photo from your son’s “private” site. Pretty soon that disturbing or embarrassing picture, with the girl’s name, is in circulation. She may have to answer to it for some time to come. It’s no wonder that teens prefer Snapchat, where the posts and photos disappeared every 24 hours. Until, read my earlier post they did not. It’s hard to imagine a social media site that does not have leaky edges. The official Instagram site says that privacy protects young people.

For what it’s worth, a contemporary parent has a new entry in their job description: they must find healthy ways to get kids on the road to social media and help them develop mental muscles to think through issues before they post. It’s like that provisional year when you and your teen have a learner’s license to drive together; you model good behavior and they internalize the rules of the road.

Make it ‘All IN’

Perhaps you have family reunions, a hobby, nature pictures, or a pet that can become your content vehicle for a public account and substitute for the “private” one. Your son gets the experience of taking pictures for it, scanning responses, and feeling part of this extended group. You meanwhile are able to look over his shoulder, so to speak, and share parental wisdom and advice, particularly when the content seems lewd or off-color. You cannot permanently shield him from inappropriate content on the Internet, but you can, at this young age, provide some lessons and model good behavior. By the way, it’s not just about content. It’s also about the time spent, and how it subtracts from alternative activities he could do.

Finally, I would recommend that you all engage in this family account on a laptop or desk computer, so that it remains a public and shared experience. Viewing it on the phone elevates it to a private one-on-one experience.