Parents Get New Weapons in War Over Kids' Phones

Parenting is war. As the father of two adult children, I have the battle scars (if not the shell shock) to prove it.

But I had it easy compared with the parents of young children today. Mobile consumer technology, especially the ubiquitous cellphone, is putting a world of risks into the hands of very young children.

It's an arms race. And finally, parents are being offered an arsenal of powerful weapons to protect their kids.

The New Threats

Fifty years ago, parents worried about their kids getting picked up off the street by creepy weirdos in cars, or being hit by cars. They worried about "bad elements" convincing their children to engage in immoral or criminal behavior. So parents drilled into their children rules of thumb: Don't talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. Come straight home after school.

It was all about physical avoidance. Those were the days.

Now risks are increasingly virtual. And avoidance is almost impossible.

The fastest-growing threat to children may be online bullying.

Of course, bullying has always existed. But social networks have enhanced what bullies can accomplish by adding elements of anonymity, public shaming and blackmail.

Thanks to social networks, bullying is no longer confined to the schoolyard; victims are potentially subject to harassment anytime, anywhere.

Facebook is the best bullying enabler ever invented, albeit an unintentional one.

Facebook and most other social networks ban children under the age of 13. But Facebook has no way to check the actual ages of users.

Consumer Reports determined about a year ago that some 7.5 million American children under the age of 13 used Facebook by lying about their age, and some 5 million of those were under the age of 10. Surely those numbers are higher now.

That means millions of second-, third- and fourth-graders are on Facebook, and potentially subject to the social pressures, potential bullying and other problems that kids usually don't have to deal with until they reach middle school or high school.

Social networks are also the single most convenient service for anyone who wants to prey on or exploit children. It's easy for anyone to set up an account under a pseudonym and pretend to be any age or either gender. Then they can simply search for first names and collect the profiles of users who look very young. If they send friend requests en masse, some percentage of children will inevitably accept. Then the predatory social engineering can begin.

Another fear parents have is that their children will be exposed to extreme violence, pornography or criminal behavior.

There's a myth that children spend all of their time on the Web visiting the Disney and Nickelodeon sites and other destinations designed specifically for kids. In reality, the single most popular site for children is YouTube.

Google does a great job keeping explicit videos off of YouTube. The vast majority of videos would be rated G if they were theatrical films. But there's plenty of R-rated content, as well. The filtering rules for YouTube adhere to technical guidelines, as in: You can't show this body part and you can't show that body part. But anything can be said (there are no filters on language). And anything can be suggested, implied or described.

YouTube is also used as a lure by purveyors of what most parents would consider objectionable material. YouTube hosts, for example, thousands of clips from porn movies, with technically objectionable content cut or blocked, but with easy links and information about how to find the rest elsewhere. These videos serve the same purpose as movie trailers. And while they meet Google's YouTube guidelines, they advertise content that doesn't.

I don't mean to overstate these threats. Statistically, the risk of any given child of being targeted by online predators, bullies or irresponsible pornographers is probably low.

Unfortunately, the chance that they will be affected by some kind of Internet-facilitated addiction is very high.

Everything online is evolving quickly, but not randomly. Every online game, social network and entertainment site is involved in fierce competition to make its offerings more distracting, more compelling, more addictive.

Those sites that fail to become more distracting than their competitors go out of business, and the most distracting thrive and grow.

Human nature remains the same. The boredom of school remains the same. But the addictive quality of online entertainment grows every day. This represents a great, underappreciated challenge for children, parents and society.

Even texting is addictive. Millions of U.S. teenagers and children sleep with their phones near their heads, just in case someone texts them at 3 a.m. Kids are often woken up several times a night to reply to texts, and that disrupts their sleep patterns and causes academic, behavioral, health and psychological problems from lack of sleep.

Phone obsession is pandemic. But the trend is driving the addictive behaviors that can be formed via a cellphone to ever younger children.

Parents Strike Back

Parents have a range of options for what to do about new threats posed by Internet-connected mobile phones.

The options range from "do nothing" to "fight fire with fire" -- in other words, use technology to combat technological threats.

For example, U.K. carrier Vodafone (the world's second largest after China Mobile) this week rolled out a service called Bemilo (pronounced BEE-my-low).

Starting at about $6 per month, Bemilo enables parents to monitor and control how their children use mobile phones. The product is a special-purpose SIM card that supports the service.

A promotional video for Bemilo trots out some alarming statistics. The company says one-third of U.K. children are sleep-deprived from texting at night. Meanwhile, 10% are bullied, one quarter use their phones during class, and one-third spend a whopping five hours per day surfing the Web on their mobile phones.

The Bemilo service enables parents to set specific hours during which their kids can use their phones. The phones simply won't work during blocked hours -- during the school day, for example, or late at night. It lets parents approve or reject people who want to establish connections for calls or texts. And it even gives parents the ability to see who calls, and to read SMS messages.

The Bemilo service is at the forefront of a growing military industrial complex arming parents to go to war for their children. In fact, an arsenal of parental-control offerings have been announced in the past month.

A parental control app announced in late April for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Mobile does many of the things that Bemilo does. (The iOS version requires a jailbroken phone.) Called MobShield, the app costs about $50 per year.

McGruff SafeGuard this month announced an iOS Web browser app that automatically blocks inappropriate sites on iPhones and iPads.

Also this month, TiVo rolled out an update to its DVR system that includes parental controls.

Even the leading Android tablet, the Amazon Kindle Fire, will be getting new parental controls, according to an announcement made by Amazon this month.

Smartphone giant Research In Motion announced new integrated parental controls for the BlackBerry Curve 9220 and the Curve 9320, and those controls will almost certainly become available for other RIM devices in the near future.

A company called Funamo this month unveiled software called Funamo Parental Control designed to safeguard phones for kids and give parents control over how their children use phones.

Microsoft is hoping that strong parental controls will help sell the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. The software is capable of sending parents weekly reports with data on how their kids are using the family PC.

As the list of online threats to children grows, the industry is finally responding with powerful tools parents can use to protect their kids.

But will parents use them? Should they?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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