This morning I hosted an event in the parliament to discuss the important issue of child safety online. My thanks to Vodafone who worked with me to put the meeting together. Whilst I have been a consistent critic of mobile telephone companies for their roaming charges, it is good to acknowledge the impressive steps Vodafone have been taking to tackle this important issue.
It has been clear for a long time now that the internet has the potential to be a child’s greatest resource for both education and of course fun.
To that end discussions like the one today help legislators like me know how industry and child protection experts view this challenge. Today we explored the new challenges for the industry, whilst gaining some insight into childrens’ use of technology.
The first speaker we heard from was Dr Richard Graham, who is a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Tavistock and Portman Health Centre. He has collected data on the impact of new technologies on the mental health of children and adolescents. Dr Graham has had first hand experience of helping young people with mental health issues. He has seen a rise over the years of problems that relate, directly or indirectly, to the new ways that we are interacting with one another online. One of the more interesting points he raised is that children he encounters often feel that the security and protection that they get from adults at home or in school, or even from police on the street, simply doesn’t exist online. Perhaps there is a need for greater monitoring of the platforms children use to interact and maybe some system of adult supervision.
The next speaker was my good friend John Carr, whose blog, Desiderata, is an excellent source of information for anyone interested in child safety online (you can read it here). John was discussing the interesting subject of the public provision of WiFi. As he pointed out, in the UK, mobile phone companies have been restricting access to adult materials (not just pornography, but also gambling and purchasing cigarettes and alcohol) on their internet services as a default since 2004. This has meant that parents have been able to allow their children to use internet enabled phones with little or no worry that they would access age inappropriate material (if the phones are being used by adults then it’s a simple process to turn the restrictions off). Since the advent of widely available public WiFi and WiFi enabled smart phones, these safeguards have been completely circumvented as the restrictions only work when using the internet connection provided by the phone network.
I would note that this is exacerbated by data tariffs. Understandably if children have the chance to save their precious gigabytes they will access “free” services wherever they can. In doing so the “safety net” of internet protection is lost.
John thought that the best response to this was to have default restriction across the board, like the phone networks already have; as a mild inconvenience for adult users was a small price to pay for child safety. I wholeheartedly agree.
The last speaker was Annie Mullins who is the Global Head of Content Standards for Vodafone. This means that she is responsible for ensuring Vodafone’s standards and policies for the protection of Vodafone customers with particular emphasis on young users in accessing new digital services both online and mobile. Annie was discussing the importance of both tools and education in helping parents protect their children. She showed us the excellent magazine that Vodafone have produced to help parents called ‘Digital Parenting’.
Apparently the demand was so high for the print version from schools and parents that they simply couldn’t keep up with the volume of requests. This shows how much education is being sought by parents. For anyone who is interested, you can find the digital copy here.
Annie then introduced us to a new app called Vodafone Guardian. This app is designed to help parents keep their children safer whilst using a smartphone. It has many ways of doing this, among them; specifying specific times during which their child can make or receive calls, use apps, access the web and use the camera. The software looked good and I hope their will be more developments like this from inside the industry in future to help parents.
I will work for best practice like this to be shared with other companies, and for other mobile companies and internet providers to give greater priority in this area to protect children.