Adam Morris: Parents tangled in a web of internet fear
AT TEN years old, most children are devoted to their Nintendo, High School Musical or Hannah Montana – and their first mobile phone. It is a purchase most parents see as a prudent safety net, providing their ever-more-adventurous offspring with an emergency line they can use wherever they are and at any time of day or night.
While the safety benefits of the mobile phone are widely appreciated, they are also presenting a growing – and still largely unexplored – risk to youngsters.
With Wi Fi-enabled phones now coming as standard, parents are increasingly having to concern themselves with what their children may be accessing.
And with Facebook and Bebo available at the press of a button on their handsets, it is no longer as simple as checking the calls log to know who they have been in contact with.
The government's internet safety advisor, Professor Tanya Byron, has highlighted the issue by calling for better parental controls on mobiles.
She is concerned about youngsters accessing harmful material, with social networking sites which can be used for bullying and pornography among the main concerns.
The market has moved fast and safety measures taken by the government and manufacturers are not keeping pace, she warns. It means everything parents worry their child may come across on the internet at home may be freely available to them on their mobile phone.
That leaves parents with a quandary of how to control their use without stripping their children of their treasured phones and the independence it gives them.
The best advice is to try to learn what use your child is making of their phone, then look at the solutions available.
Simeon Coney, vice-president of business development for Adaptive Mobile, a company which specialises in mobile phone safety packages for parents, says some patterns are becoming clear amongst young mobile users.
"We know the average age for a first mobile phone is now ten. We also know the most popular time for these children to access the internet is between 9pm and 11pm, probably while they are in bed and the parent doesn't know," he says.
There are technological solutions available, depending on the model of handset, offering a limited range of parental controls, from the censoring of websites inappropriate for under-18s to effectively deactivating the phone for certain hours in the day.
But the technology still lags behind other areas of control parents have, particularly to the comparable home internet access, where password-protected programmes easily ensure safe browsing.
"It is possible to put time limits on them, or for them to be shut off during school lessons," says Mr Coney. "But just now all there is for internet viewing is either 'watch everything suitable for under-18s', or 'allow access to it all'.
"It isn't like cinema where you can have PGs and even 15-rated certificates."
The manufacturers will catch up and start offering more sophisticated parental control packages, he predicts.
"My advice to parents would be canvas the market. These things are market-driven and eventually the demand will be from parents," he says. "It has been something that has been quite slow to come about, particularly in this country.
"There is more interest abroad where there is more of a sense of protecting the family group, which is slightly more lacking in the liberal western Europe."
Other options open to parents are creating a friends and family list – where every number in the world is assumed banned unless entered by the parent. There are also more basic usage controls, which block spam, much like an e-mail firewall does, and harassment controls that block specific numbers
The key for parents may be to trust their instincts without turning a blind eye to what their children are doing.
Charles Gibb, an Edinburgh-based child psychologist who works for the Educational Psychology Practice, says traditional good parenting should prevail across all technological boundaries.
"I think it does tend to be blown out of proportion a little. Using mobiles and the internet does give bullies more and easier ways of doing it, but these are children who would be bullies anyway," he says.
"When it comes to the internet, yes, there is unpleasant material out there, but trust is important, and if a parent can see what the child has been doing on their mobile, this will build trust."
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