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)
* If Web access is allowed, basic filtering, as well as blocking of phone-based purchases at no extra cost
* The ability to turn off text messaging on kids' phones, or "sub-accounts"
* The ability to block text messages or phone calls from specific numbers on some of the phones each carrier offers
* The ability to monitor kids' minutes and text messages (the bills they're running up) via the carriers' Web sites
* The ability to limit the times of day children can use their phones (in some cases at additional charge).

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.

Related links

* 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.
* "Students cautioned to avoid cell phone, Web pitfalls" in the Minneapolis area's Pioneer Press
* In the UK, "21 million UK mobile phone subscribers – of a
total of almost 48 million – belong to a social-networking site. Out of
this 21 million around 5 million" people use their phones to access
their social-networking profiles at least once a month, The Guardian reports.
* The Wall Street Journal looks at the range of parental-control features available from both carriers and third-party providers.
* Check out the newest plague in the pipeline for mobile users – text spam on phones. The New York Times reports.
* See how far we've come: I first wrote about parental controls on phones back in 2004.

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