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Thursday, May 15, 2008

What mobile carriers need to do for kids

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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