Mobile Future

Online safety and the mobile web

Before the Internet, child safety measures largely applied to monitoring one’s children as they ventured outside the safety of the home. Children could only meet strangers and threatening individuals once they moved into an uncontrolled environment. With the rise of the World Wide Web, came instant communication in chat rooms, web sites, streaming video, and email, now our children have access to the outside world with the click of a "mouse".  The outside world is now inside the front door.  And now, with the possibilities of wireless Internet service on children’s cell phones, the threat has been expanded.  As parents and grandparents, we want to provide every opportunity to our children to expand their knowledge of the fascinating world of cyberspace.  However, we must also be diligent and raise their level of understanding to deal with and recognize a possible threat.    

The Yankee Group research organization estimates that over half of the 20 million preteens (8-12) living in the United States will be carrying a cell phone by the end of 2008. And while wireless service provides myriad child safety protections-the  ability to phone for help if a kid gets lost or physically threatened and ensured communication with a parent-it also bears potential threats.

Cyberspace can unfortunately sometimes place kids dangerously close to sex predators, criminals, or simply inappropriate content. LA Times reports, for example, on how kids visiting popular website and virtual worlds like Webkinz and Club Penguin are being harassed by cyber bullies-kids stealing each other’s virtual goods, or discovering how to swear and curse at each other. But even if wireless service is responsible for the problem, it can also provide the solution in cyber security measures and education programs for young children.

New Zealand ‘s law enforcement organizations have given education high priority and adopted a national interagency approach to cyber safety education called NetSafe. Many New Zealand Police officers have worked with NetSafe since its inception in 2000; including members of the fraud squad, the E-Crime Lab, sexual abuse teams, and police youth education officers

NetSafe seeks to get children excited about cyber security with a separate, charitable subsidiary of the site called Hector’s World, created in 2006. In its high-quality animated episodes, Hector Protector is a dolphin in the underwater realm of Silicon Deep. The site lends children a fictional and appealing context in which to learn cyber security guidelines; in the eight minute clips, the first set focuses on privacy and personal information online, while the rest of the storybooks tailor to specific age groups (5-6 or 7-8, for example) to reach out to the child viewer. Hector’s World even has a free downloadable Hector Safety Button, a child-activated safety device which installs a swimming Hector in the corner of the computer screen; if the child is disturbed by something online, he or she can click a button so that Hector swims across the screen and covers it from view. The site’s applications thereby stimulate proactive cyber safety in children who end up emulating the behavior of Hector Protector as he swims through his own watery community.

If children can be taught at an early age general guidance for online safety behavior, they can adopt healthy habits for when they later become engaged with more extensive online-browsing. The wireless Internet undoubtedly presents some risks for children playing with their cell phones, but it also offers valuable opportunities to combat those risks with early education.