|What mobile carriers need to do for youth|
Great progress with parental controls - Web filters, number-blocking, etc. - has been made, but technology's not enough. Here's why.
by Anne Collier
US cellphone companies have made impressive headway with parental controls lately. That's great in terms of preventive measures, but this country's mobile industry has quite a ways to go, compared with those of some other countries, on support for kids and families after bad stuff happens.
I'll tell you what I mean in a moment, but first here is what's in place right now. According to the mobile industry's Wireless Foundation, all the major carriers - Alltel, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless - offer:
* The ability to turn off Web access on children's phones (under a parent's account)
So why is technology not enough? Because for the same reason tech controls on a single computer are no longer by themselves enough protection on the everywhere, anytime, user-driven, multimedia, multi-device fixed and mobile social Web, tech controls aren't enough on phones. Certainly technology can be a help on any platform - like bandaids in a family First Aid kit - but kids find workarounds both technical and non-technical, including using their friends' phones and accounts.
Even more key is that - for young people - devices are just means to an end. Socializing is the focus, not its enablers. Solution development increasingly has to be as holistic, cross-platform, and collaborative as the "problem." And what ultimately protects the vast majority of teens is the software between their ears, with parents providing backup.
No matter how much support and good sense they have, however, teens take risks - because risk assessment, child development experts say, is a primary task of adolescence, along with personal and social identity exploration. In the midst of all that, sometimes things come up, and those things most frequently fall in the huge gray area that is noncriminal and beyond the scope of law enforcement, as much as law enforcement needs to be in the mix.
One example of behavior in this gray area is peer harassment, often called cyberbullying (a term that's less than meaningful to teens - see this). It has been happening a lot on phones, longer in other countries. In the UK, "bullying" is the single biggest issue mobile companies get abuse reports about concerning kids, a colleague there told me. Britain's major carriers have worked on this a lot, and one of them, O2, has a team of more than 100 staff people specifically trained to deal with bullying and other children's phone abuse issues. Vodafone has done a lot of work in this area too.
In New Zealand, I recently spent an afternoon at NetSafe, the country's premier online-safety organization. NetSafe works with New Zealand's two major carriers, Vodafone NZ and NZ Telecom, which have customer-service staff trained to detect and send these gray-area issues on to NetSafe for quick dispatch to the expertise most appropriate for each case. This approach illustrates the "holistic, cross-platform, collaborative" approach I mention above: NetSafe works with young people, parents, educators, legal advisers, law enforcement, psychologists, and policymakers; these people know that solutions to cyberbullying, domestic violence, nude photo-sharing, teacher defamation, or any problem kids experience almost always requires more than one skill set to work through.
This is the kind of support - customizable, holistic, collaborative, and remedial as well as preemptive - that is most realistic for young people whose everyday lives are increasingly blended with technology. Social-networking services have already implemented, have had to implement, measures with those characteristics: preemptive ones such as consumer education, PSAs, and training videos for parents; reactive, back-office ones such as customer-service staff trained for child protection, dedicated helplines for educators and law enforcement, and dedicated customer service for parents; and collaborative ones such as lobbying for more effective legislation and developing technology for law enforcement. Now the mobile carriers need to too. Not that I'm singling them out: Online games, gaming communities, and virtual worlds are on the next frontier for kid-tech safety.
* The Federal Trade Commission has been looking into what sorts
of rules and regs there might need to be to protect kids on cellphones,
Internet News reports
- from whether there should even be ads (around premium services such
as wallpapers and ringtones) aimed at youth to age challenges for
people making transactions with their phones. On the latter, right now
kids could just lie when a screen pops up requesting their age, so the
wireless industry is looking into technology like that on the Web where
a "cookie" installed on a site visitor's computer can stop a user who
is denied entry from going back and entering a different age.