It’s fair to say that I’ve followed the mobile landscape for some time now. I sometimes forget that many of you may not remember a time before mobile phones existed, and some of you perhaps don’t even recall handsets without colour screens.
Something struck me on a recent visit to see my nephew. He’s 9 and was playing with his friends. He’s like most other kids of his age. He has an XBox and has access to an iPod, even though it’s really his Dads’. But all this got me thinking about just how open and accessible the internet has become for kids. Oh, and you’ll quickly realise that this is little boys I’m talking about here.
Remember just a few years ago? As the default “computer guy” I’m usually asked about geeky stuff so, if anyone had concerns about online safety, I’d give the same advice – put the computer in a family room where others can see what sites are being visited.
Now though, all that has changed.
Back when I was at school, there were no mobile phones. Yes I know, this is probably hard to believe and this has instantly aged me with the majority of our readers. Sure, you’d see the odd person in the city with a rather hefty handset, but there were definitely no phones at school.
Porn wasn’t accessible. It was tucked away on the top of newsagent shelves or under the counter of the local video rental shop. You might perhaps have a friend who knew someone who could get a naughty magazine, then it’d rapidly get passed around the school yard. But a totally open door to the local XXX Porn shop, with no-one watching ? We never had that.
Unfortunately, that’s all changed and this, if we’re really honest, is what most kids have now.
It’s not just the porn. Violence, swearing and horror is easier to access. It’s not controlled or monitored as much either.
Many blame the parents but, especially if you have boys, there’s an unstoppable force at play. Kids want to play games. It’s natural. Games are available on the XBox, so they want an XBox. There’s 18-rated games available for the XBox and Playstation which, inevitably, end up being played by someone your child knows. Your child, like many other children, will then want to join in and play too – plus there’s the online “social aspect” that children want to take part in
The parents slowly hit the same problem – do you stop your child playing those violent games, those ones that are meant for 18-year-olds?
Yes, you can. However, many parents don’t do this because they feel that their son will be the “odd one out” by not playing those games that their friends are already playing. Say no, and their friends could be enjoying online battles without your son.
You could be lucky. You could be reading this thinking …
I’m lucky. My 8 / 9 / 10 / 11-year-old son and his friends don’t play Halo or Call of Duty and they understand that they have to be well into their teenage years before they can play that sort of stuff.
..and that’s great. But there’s something else I’ve started noticing more and more.
I’ve been out to restaurants on holiday and kids seem to be using these more and more. An iPod Touch is now seen as “better” than a GameBoy for most. Some have iPads or Android tablets, some even have full smartphones – an Android smartphone, perhaps even an iPhone.
The iPod especially has become a mobile gaming device now. I’ve seen kids aged between 3 and above with these and they’re very good (if a little expensive) for keeping your child entertained. Parents buy an iPod because the games are cheaper, it’s mobile and it’s not a “phone”. However, very quickly kids learn about FaceTime and they’re calling each other and keeping in touch through video.
I’ve seen kids using FaceTime and simply leaving the iPod or iPad on for hours at a time. It’s not something they treat as a “call”, it’s a way to be in the same room as someone and it’s almost seen as a right by kids. This, along with online multiplayer games on iPods, iPads, smartphones and gaming consoles, brings younger children into contact with a much wider group of people. I’ve heard of young kids playing online games and getting verbal abuse from older children across the world. Sure, we may have overheard swearing when we were at school, but it wasn’t from people across the planet and it wasn’t (in my humble opinion) as bad or as venemous.
But let me circle back to my original point. I used to tell people to “keep the computer in a family room” and “not to let kids use the internet alone”, but now it’s increasingly difficult, perhaps even impractical. A young boy with an iPod just needs to Google the word “boobs” and they can instantly say goodbye to their innocence. Google isn’t just going to return a few slightly naughty pictures, oh no.
If you buy your son an iPod for playing offline and online games, how do you stop them browsing the internet whenever they want? The iPod isn’t just a gaming device, but many parents assume that it’ll only be used for that, so how to you protect little Johnny?
Turn off the WiFi perhaps? That’s a good idea, but then other members of your family could be inconvenienced and you’d have to start thinking of ways around that.
Web monitoring tools maybe? Again, a good plan but they’re usually designed for computers.
Yes, I’m aware of some iOS and Android software that will monitor the web usage but, let’s face it, kids are clever.
Whatever you do and no matter how good your intentions are, if your child has a small device which can connect to the internet, they’ve got a much better chance of seeing things at a younger age than I ever did.
Your internet provider, in a lot of cases, will have provided a router with some family safety features. Use them. Be bothered. Protect your kids. Get into your router, find the mobile device your child is using, lock it down, control it. If you don’t, no-one else will. Sure, providers give you the tools, but you as the parent need to use them.