The Kids and Mobile Phones blog was sponsored by ACE*COMM Corporation, the makers of Parent Patrol®, a service that let parents control how their children use mobile phones. The blog was created to promote discussion around the various issues involving kids, parents, and mobile phones. Its original home is long gone, and the sponsor company has changed its name and no longer offers the service. This is an archive of the original blog, which ran from August 2007 to April 2008.

 

Kids and Mobile Phones Blog

Welcome to the Kids and Mobile Phones blog!

August 27, 2007 [Permalink]

On this page:

There are many conflicting positions around the issue of children and mobile phones. At its core are questions of balance: how to balance children’s offline responsibilities with their freedom to participate in their social networks; and how to balance parents’ desire to be “always in touch” with their concerns about children abusing their phone privileges.

We decided to start this blog in order to explore this issue and the various questions around it. First some disclosure: this blog is sponsored by ACE*COMM Corporation, the makers of a product called Parent Patrol. Parent Patrol is designed to give parents control over how their kids use their mobile phones.

In the process of taking Parent Patrol to market, we discovered there is little agreement among parents about the issue of kids and mobile phones. In many discussions, the opinions polarize into two camps; in one, parents announce that under no circumstances does any child need a mobile phone, case closed. In the other camp are parents who want their kids to have mobile phones so they are always within reach, for both security and convenience reasons. Those parents often shrug off the potential downside, dismissing it as “not a problem” or simply not worrying about it because they feel there is nothing they can do.

This blog is here to explore the vast middle ground between those two opposites. We’re going to look into how kids are using – and abusing – their mobiles. We’re also going to talk about why some parents want their kids to have mobile phones and why some do not. And finally, we’re going to discuss the kinds of things that parents can do to ensure their kids use their phones responsibly.

What we will not do is try to sell you or your kids a phone. As parents, that is entirely your decision, and we don’t receive any direct benefit either way. But if your child does have a mobile phone, or if you are considering providing one, we hope the information you find in this blog will help you make good decisions about making sure their phone is used responsibly.

R U up? Kids texting at all hours

August 29th, 2007 [Permalink]

When I was a kid I used to love reading long into the night. Just like in those cliché scenes from movies, I would get under the covers with a flashlight and a book and read until the wee hours.

I suppose that’s why I’ve never been much of a morning person. It was very difficult to get out of bed at 7:30 AM following one of those long nights. I’d swear to myself that I’d go to sleep earlier next night, but no. Some character from whatever book I was reading would reach out and pull me in, and the next thing I knew it was another battle to stay awake and get through a few more pages.

I think some kids still do that, which may or may not be a good thing (for bibliophiles like me, it’s hard to declare reading a harmful activity under any circumstances). However, the new phenomenon is for kids to dive under the covers for all night text messaging sessions on their mobile phones.

According to a HarrisInteractive poll reported on this Pantagrapy.com article, sixty percent of (presumably American) teens use text messaging. Verizon Wireless alone tracked 22.3 billion text messages in the first three months of 2007. According to a Teenage Research Unlimited study reported by the Express-Times of NJ.com, almost 25% of teenagers in a relationship have used their mobiles to talk to, or text, their boyfriend or girlfriend between midnight and 5:00AM.

All that sleep deprivation can’t be a good thing. Some parents are taking matters into their own hands by insisting their kids leave their phones in a charger in the kitchen or some other common area at night. Other parents comb through their kids’ billing records to see if they’ve been sending messages at odd hours. These aren’t exactly elegant solutions.

Some mobile providers let you disable text messaging on the children’s phones, but there generally is no time factor involved – texting is either enabled or disabled. If there was ever a way to start a war with your kids at home, it would be by totally blocking their ability to text! Anastasia Goodstein, on the other hand, doesn’t think late night texting is necessarily a bad thing. In her new book Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online, she proposes that kids are fundamentally no different now than they were in the 1980s or even the 1950s. All that has changed, she says, is the media they use.

She makes a very good point. After all, teenagers need to find their own boundaries, although some guidance from parents is recommended. But what about younger kids? I can’t imagine anything good coming from a twelve-year-old texting his friends at 3:00AM, just as I reluctantly admit that I probably shouldn’t have been under the covers reading Stephen King at 3:00AM back when I was 12.

A better solution is to use a phone service that lets you turn off selected functions, such as voice and/or texting, during specific hours that you choose, such as bed time or study time. The technology exists to do so, and several carriers offer it.

That’s it. No monitoring of the phone is needed, no combing through call records. No remembering to leave the phone in the kitchen every night. A set-it-and-forget-it approach like that sounds a lot better than having to remember to confiscate your kids’ phones every night.

They get it in New Hampshire. What about New York?

September 11, 2007 [Permalink]

One of the big uproars last year in the world of mobile phones was when New York City enforced its 18-year-old rule banning all electronic signaling devices from public schools. The law was originally intended to ban pagers (remember those?) but last year Mayor Bloomberg enforced a crackdown in order to ban mobile phones from school property. That meant kids could not even carry their phones if they were turned off.

Parents were outraged because, while they understood the need to have phones turned off during class time, they wanted their kids to be “connected” during the trips to and from school, and during after-school activities. If the kids can’t even bring the phones to school then they won’t have them available for those other purposes.

In an August 27, 2007 article in The Citizen of Laconia, a newspaper serving New Hampshire’s lakes region, writer Geoff Cunningham Jr. describes the situation as seen by local school administrators. One school principal, Lisa Green Barber of Woodland Heights Elementary, admitted that “the cell phone is a useful tool for parents looking to connect with students once the school day is over.” Another principal, Patti Kennelly of Interlakes High School, nailed it when she said (as Cunningham reports it) that “her thought on the devices is that they actually are a very positive tool if used properly and shut off during instructional time.”

They get it in Laconia. Will they get it in New York?

Could be. New York City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg’s veto yesterday when they passed a bill intended to change the draconian law. The bill is largely symbolic in that it essentially just gives kids the right to carry phones to and from school, but opponents of Bloomberg’s position hope it is the springboard they need to initiate a real change.

What seems to be missing in the discussion is how parental controls can factor in. Parent Patrol, Disney Mobile, AT&T’s Smart Limits, and other services all allow parents to disable their children’s phones during times of the day that they specify, such as school hours.

Most people would agree that it isn’t healthy or useful for kids to use their mobiles while in school. But surely a city as resourceful as New York can see that there are other ways to address the problem than using the brute force of a total ban.

AT&T Launches “Smart Limits”

September 4, 2007 [Permalink]

AT&T announced today the launch of their “Smart Limits for WirelessTM” service, designed to give parents control over their children’s mobile phones. KMP blog applauds this innovative move by such a large wireless operator. It seems to be in line with what parents are looking for.

Smart Limits for WirelessTM isn’t the first parental control to hit the market – specialty handsets like the FireflyTM have been around for some time, and services like Disney Mobile and Kajeet offer parental controls through a combination of special handsets and dedicated wireless service.

AT&T’s new offering, on the other hand, really flings the curtain back and brings parental controls into the mainstream. AT&T subscribers do not have to dumb-down their handset choices or switch providers in order to have robust and useful parental controls at their fingertips.

If anything, this will likely accelerate the offering of parental controls by other mobile operators, as AT&T’s move is a bold statement which confirms our view regarding the demand for, and viability of, this kind of product. For example, operators in several markets are gearing up to launch Parent Patrol from ACE*COMM this fall, and others are sure to follow.

California driving/texting law: picking on kids?

September 20, 2007 [Permalink]

I happen to be on holiday in California. When I opened a newspaper a few days ago I saw a headline that said Governor Schwarzenegger has signed a bill that makes it illegal for teenagers to text while driving.

Um... Shouldn’t that be illegal for anyone to do?

Having almost gotten clipped several times by drivers who were talking on their mobiles, I tend to be on the side of those who think that mobiles and driving don’t mix. So you can be sure that I’m against texting while driving. Frankly, the idea of doing so seems rather insane to me.

Upon closer examination, it turns out the law goes beyond just text messaging; it bans those under 18 from using any electronic device while driving. The bill, originally proposed by Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), cites evidence that younger drivers are far more prone to accidents due to distractions than are older drivers. According to SignOnSanDiego, California Highway Patrol statistics indicate that mobile phone use is the leading cause of driver distraction. Also, a 2001 study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, in part:

16-year-old drivers have a crash rate three times higher than that of 17-year-olds, five times greater than 18-year-olds and almost 10 times greater than drivers ages 30-59.

So this law gets it half right. Governor Schwarzenegger says it is necessary because teenagers have slower reaction times. That’s certainly true for most teens when it comes to driving. However, some teens can literally text with their eyes closed — I know of one kid who claims he can send text messages while in school by not taking the phone out of his pocket.

On the other hand, many (not all) adults are pretty good at driving but are not as ninja-like at texting as kids tend to be, so they’re at a disadvantage too. You can probably find people who, regardless of age, could text and drive at the same time without presenting a hazard, but they would definitely be in the minority of the population. I can’t help but think of the rough- edged town where I grew up. Back then I knew of plenty of people who regularly drove while intoxicated yet never had an accident. They didn’t think it was a problem, but that doesn’t mean drinking and driving should be legal.

At the end of the day, any initiatives that provide safety measures for children should be applauded. And despite what people might think, the California government is not just picking on teenagers; this law takes effect at the same time as another law that prohibits adults from using any mobile device while driving that is not “hands free.”

Some related links:

Ephraim Schwartz at InfoWorld thinks the law is ridiculous.

Russell Shaw at Mobile Messaging 2.0 says “bring it on.”

Problem with AT&T Smart Limits

September 24, 2007 [Permalink]

AT&T has disabled one of the key features in its recently launched Smart Limits parental control service (WSJ story; registration required). Contrary to some reports that imply the service has been completely disabled, this article at ComputerWorld indicates it is just one feature — the ability to block incoming calls during parent-specified timeframes — that has been nixed.

AT&T made the move after discovering a problem with 911 connectivity during blocked timeframes. Although a phone using the Smart Limits service can always make calls to 911 there was a risk that if the call were disconnected during a blocked timeframe the 911 operator would not be able to call the child back. An AT&T spokesperson says that the situation has not actually occurred, but they realized the potential risk during their internal testing.

This is not unique to AT&T’s Smart Limits. The same 911 callback problem exists with many prepaid service plans (callbacks may be refused if the user has a zero balance). However, kudos to AT&T for recognizing the problem and for suspending the feature until they have resolved it.

I expect a solution will be found quickly. After all, ACE*COMM anticipated this problem with our Parent Patrol service, which is very similar to AT&T Smart Limits, and we found a way around it.

Disney Mobile is Kaput!

October 2, 2007 [Permalink]

According to this article at PC World, Disney is pulling the plug on its Disney Mobile phone service as of December 31, 2007. That spells the end of its parental control service for mobile phones.

Apparently sales did not live up to expectations. Speculations abound in situations like this, including Boing Boing’s take that implies the service was extraordinarily invasive; “Apparently, they weren’t able to scare enough parents into putting telephonic prisoner-anklets onto their kids.” That’s a comment on Disney Mobile’s ability to track children’s locations via GPS and to monitor their conversations; features that some people feel go beyond the boundaries of parental controls and fall into the category of snooping.

I think it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, Disney is not a true mobile operator; they run Disney Mobile as an “MVNO” (mobile virtual network operator). That means the service runs on the networks of other, more established, operators (in this case, Sprint Nextel). MVNOs in the U.S. have been struggling a lot lately, in contrast with Europe and Asia where they tend to fare better, although in those places they are often positioned as discount or bargain operators.

But MVNOs in the U.S. are different. They try to compete with the “big guns” of mobile based on features and brand recognition instead of on price. Parents might nod in approval at the Disney brand, but when it comes to plunking down cash money for their children’s mobile phones they probably prefer to remain loyal to the provider they’re already using – which probably gives them a cut-rate price on the kids’ phone through a family plan. Even if they want the parental controls – and research shows that parents do – they don’t want their kids to be on a different network than the rest of the family, and they don’t want to deal with separate bills and higher basic pricing.

There’s another issue that might have been a factor too. Disney is widely recognized as a ubiquitous merchandiser and content provider, not a mobile operator. Cross that with the target market for parental controls; parents who want their kids to have a mobile phone but don’t want them to over-use or abuse them (in other words, they don’t want their kids to love the phone too much). Put another way, what happens when one of the world’s biggest marketers of children-oriented products comes up with a kids’ phone that is supposed to provide protection from overuse and abuse?

The key might be in this C|Net News article (second paragraph) where the service is described as “a special phone service designed to disseminate its content and create a slew of applications designed for parents and families.” Perhaps associating Disney, the powerhouse marketer and brander, with “control” created a bit of cognitive dissonance in the minds of parents. Perhaps it was not unlike having Krispy Kreme sponsor your weight loss program.

In the end, I don’t think there was one lone factor that lead to the failure of Disney Mobile. I’m inclined to think it was a combination of things, including pricing, reluctance to switch providers, and a sense that perhaps a giant merchandiser of kiddie fun is not the right watchdog for children’s phone use.

In no way should the demise of Disney Mobile be seen as a sign that parents do not want parental controls for their children’s mobile phones. Rather, it means that parents want parental controls, but they want it from their existing provider. And they don’t want it to come with a truckload of downloads and merchandising lures.

Talk Porn to your Kids

October 4, 2007 [Permalink]

The Porn Talk is a Web site designed to help parents talk to their kids about porn. Whaaaat??? you might think. Well, the fact of the matter is that the current generation of kids is the first to grow up in a world of free, ubiquitous, and easily accessed porn. Even with parental controls on Web browsers, there’s no way you can completely isolate your children from it. Don’t forget – a lot of mobile phones have Web browsers on them too, although Web content filters are also available for those.

So instead of just pretending it isn’t there, or throwing up our hands and saying “kids these days are Web savvy and used to it,” The Porn Talk offers advice on how to talk to your kids about porn; what it is, why it is all over the Web, and what it all means.

Fortunately, it’s not just some moralizing fire-and-brimstone diatribe thundering from a virtual pulpit; The Porn Talk offers real- world advice from a panel of what appears to be level-headed, slightly ministerial experts. From their “about us” page:

The Porn Talk team is made up of family life experts, professional counselors, pastors, creative directors, parents, teens, and Web developers who are dedicated to helping parents address the issue of pornography and Internet dangers. [...] We want to be proactive in stopping the incredible amounts of misinformation and misconceptions and to empower parents to talk to their kids about these important topics.

They have a blog, articles, and links to subscribe to a newsletter. It seems like a very useful gadget for the “good parenting toolbox.”

(Update: the web site referenced above is no longer online, and the URL seems to have been taken over by a porn-related site. A good alternative is Amy Lang's Birds + Bees + Kids.)

Is “safer” necessarily “better?”

October 9, 2007 [Permalink]

I recently heard a radio interview with Matt Hern, author of Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better. Hern takes the position that we are falling victim to an avalanche of safety warnings and panic-level worries about the hazards that surround us. The result, he says, is a dumbing-down of our ability to make clear and reasoned assessments of, and decisions about, risks, as well as a loss of personal accountability for our own safety. His book puts a spotlight on our fixation with safety and calls for a rethinking of our approach to risk and risk taking.

While I haven’t read the book, I found myself nodding in agreement as I listened to the interview. For example, he talked about people’s worries about child abductions. On the surface, it’s a perfectly reasonable source of worry; few things are as terrifying and tragic as the abduction of a child. But Hern points out that although such abductions garner immense media attention when they happen, the truth is they really don’t happen very often. On the other hand, children are injured or killed every day in automobile accidents.

So if parents decide to drive their children to and from school every day for the sake of safety, they are in fact engaging in a high risk activity for the sake of avoiding a low risk activity.

Helm’s argument goes beyond simply pointing out the apparently hypocritical aspects of some of our so-called safety choices; he says that our children stand to loose out on some essentials of childhood when they are overly sheltered and coddled. Riding a bicycle, walking to school with friends, climbing trees – the world seems to be filled with hazard warnings against these activities. But those activities help our children grow and to develop a sense of agency, of being in control of their world.

A similar opinion can be found in this 2004 article entitled “A Nation of Wimps” from Psychology Today:

“Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”

So what does that have to do with kids and mobile phones? I made the connection later the same day when I found myself at the Web site of a company offering a mobile service for parents. It wasn’t the idea of parental controls that bothered me – heck, the company that sponsors this blog offers exactly that. Rather, it was the tone of the site; full of dire statistics about pornography and predators, viruses and bullies. The solution, according to the makers of that product, is constant and vigilant monitoring by parents.

Well, I’m not going to say those threats are not real, or that they don’t strike fear in the hearts of parents. But Matt Hern would probably say their actual risk is overstated. What I personally don’t like is the way the site provokes fear and panic in order to promote their service.

Helm would likely also have something to say about allowing your children a bit of rope; but not enough so they hang themselves. He would likely think that constant monitoring and snooping is not a good solution for most kids, especially in the case of “tweens” and young teens; doing that requires a lot of time and it puts a strain on the relationship at an age when developing a sense of trust is more important than ever.

Rather, parental control tools should focus on automatically filtering out the nasty stuff, and of helping kids develop a sense of appropriate usage for their phones (such as not staying up all night texting their friends). The tools are just part of the solution; the other part involves talking to your kids and educating them about hazards and how to avoid them – and that includes giving them a bit of wiggle room.

A phone for a five-year-old

October 12, 2007 [Permalink]

The Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Tennessee, recently ran a profile of a family in which the five year old daughter has a mobile phone. The parents, Collene and Deandre Twitty, seem to have a pretty good grasp on the realities of giving a phone to a child so young. It’s a basic prepaid phone with no Internet access and no texting, and the daughter, Quri, does not take it to school.

At first glance, they seem to have everything covered – little Quri uses the phone to “make a few calls” and to play games. That’s all. But she’s only five. What about when she’s seven, or eleven years old? Older kids (and it seems funny to think of an eleven-year-old as “older”) are very gadget and tech savvy, and want to do more. Teenagers in particular are using their phones as a necessary part of their social lives; they stay in touch with their friends, and with events, through their MySpace and Facebook pages, via micro-blogging services like Twitter, and various other social networking communities.

Parents of those kids probably need a bit more than just a prepaid plan and a restricted-number handset to keep their kids’ mobile usage in check.

For one thing, kids older than six or seven will likely refuse to use those “kiddie” phones like the Firefly and the TicTalk. But more importantly, parents need to be able to control when the child uses the phone, not just for how long.

With prepaid plans, the child gets a chunk of minutes for each time frame; usually a month. If they use them up too quickly, that’s it; the phone is dead until it is topped up. (This begs the question of how much “security” do you get from a phone that is out of minutes.) However, those plans do not keep keep the child from using the phone at inappropriate times, such as at 3:00 AM or while in class or the school library. Only service-based parental controls (not mentioned in the Clarion Ledger article), such as AT&T Smart Limits, the recently defunct Disney Mobile, or Parent Patrol, can do that. I suspect it won’t be long before Quri’s parents find themselves considering such plans.

On the other hand, maybe not. Based on what I read in the article, it seems like Quri’s parents have a good handle on appropriate use. There is no doubt that in some families, well-placed conversation and leading by example is all that’s needed to instill a sense of responsible usage into the minds of the children. (Yes, I can hear you laughing...). But as you know, kids will be kids.

Like I keep saying, if your kids are going to have mobile phones, the best approach is probably a combination of friendly tools (not snooping tools) and good parenting.

ICE your kid’s emergency number

October 19, 2007 [Permalink]

A few years ago, someone came up with a brilliant idea: everyone should put an item in their mobile phone’s contacts list called ICE (In Case of Emergency), and they should connect it with the phone number of the person who should be called in the case of an emergency. So, for example, spouses should put each other’s numbers in the ICE contact, and children should have the most easily reachable parent’s number listed.

Supposedly the campaign was conceived by an emergency response worker who was frustrated by the many times he was on the scene of an injured and incapacitated person who had a mobile phone on them, but with no indication of which number in the contacts list was the appropriate person to call. Along comes ICE. It’s a great idea, and apparently it’s catching on in North America and the U.K. It’s certainly not fool-proof, as not everyone is aware of the ICE campaign, but I suspect most emergency response workers are.

It seems particularly relevant for kids, as they are probably more inclined to become hysterical in an emergency situation. A kid could be only slightly injured, or not at all but just really scared, and not have the wits about him or her to call home. But if a police officer or ambulance worker sees he or she has a phone, and checks for an ICE number, that could really help.

So please set yourself and your spouse up with ICE numbers in your mobile phones, and do so for your kids if they have phones.

Further reading:

Then there’s the LOLcat solution...

October 25, 2007 [Permalink]

Electronic Media and the Family (Report)

October 26, 2007 [Permalink]

The Vanier Institute of the Family, a Canadian charitable organization “dedicated to promoting the well-being of Canadian families” has released a new 26 page report called Good Servant, Bad Master? Electronic Media and The Family. The report is a follow-up to its 1998 report, simply titled Electronic Media and the Family.

While the research was conducted entirely within Canada, the report is useful for anyone in North America who is interested in understanding how media trends affect contemporary families. After all, while there exist some cultural and “identity” differences between Canadians and U. S. Americans, the issues dealt with in the report are virtually identical on either side of the border

The report discusses, in easy to read, non-bureaucratic language, the state of contemporary families within the context of the home as a “media hub.” While most of the emphasis is on television and the Internet, it also discusses hand-held devices such as MP3 players and mobile phones. It looks at how family life is altered – in good, bad, and neutral ways – by the proliferation of media and media devices. It also offers some insight into parenting practices to help ensure that the effect of that proliferation is as positive as possible.

For example, it offers specific advice in the “What Parents Can Do” section, including:

  • Give kids age-appropriate rules and negotiate boundaries around media use;
  • Help kids become more media literate;
  • Be good role models.

I particularly like how it emphasizes the responsibility parents have in providing guidance and role model behavior. Parental control solutions for TV, Internet, and mobile phones do not stand alone; they should be seen as a backup, or support, for good parenting practices. The positive results, according the the Vanier report, are clear:

Those who set rules have kids who spend less time with media and more time reading. Their expectations also shape young people’s Internet experiences. Kids, for instance, who live in homes with no rules about meeting online acquaintances or visiting sites with offensive content are more likely to be sexually harassed.

Further, the report advises:

Limit the number of individually owned devices — computers, televisions and mobile phones — in homes, and move them out of bedrooms and into public spaces. There will be conflict over the use of these devices, but this is an opportunity to ‘teach’ negotiation and tolerance.

  • Limit the times at which they can be used. Don’t have the television on all the time, during meals and when no one is watching. Create times when mobile phones are switched off. One research study found that kids who live in homes where the television is on at all times or at least during meals are less likely to say they talk their problems out with their parents.
  • Develop rules about giving out personal information or visiting certain sites on the Internet. These rules make a real difference, especially with younger children.
  • Ensure that real-world rules around issues like bullying hold also for the virtual worlds in which young people increasingly live.
  • Negotiate the amount of time kids spend with their devices on a daily basis. Parental rules tend to focus much more on the content their kids are exposed to than the amount of time they invest each day in their media encounters.

You can read the report online here, or download it as a PDF.

Parental Controls in OS X Leopard

November 2, 2007 [Permalink]

One of the features in the highly anticipated recent release of OS X Leopard, the upgrade for the Mac’s operating system, is its revamped parental controls. Mac’s OS has had parental controls for several years now, but they were buried in the “Accounts” setup and were not talked about very much. But with Leopard, the controls have been brought forward and gussied up to make them easier to use, very flexible, and more effective. It lets you choose and adjust the controls according to your children’s ages and the degree to which you feel parental controls are necessary.

What I find most interesting is the way that Apple is really touting the new parental controls, putting them front and center in their marketing efforts for OS X Leopard. I also really like the design approach. It’s not just about Web filters; Leopard lets you set time limits for using the computer – based on quantity of time – as well as “bed times,” meaning an evening shutoff time even if the child has not gone “over the clock” on his or her time limit.

Leopard's Bedtime Controls

Windows Vista, which was released almost a year ago, has similar parental controls, although for some reason that feature didn’t grab people’s attention as much. As someone who uses both Macs and Windows PCs, I can make a few speculations, including the fact that whenever you bring “Microsoft” and “control” up in the same sentence people tend to get nervous. Also, it could be that people’s interest in the Vista parental controls got lost in all the complaining about the DRM and other problems associated with Vista.

Vista's Time Controls

None of this has anything to do with mobile phones – or does it?

I think it is related, because it reinforces the idea that parental controls for things like time limits and evening shutoff times are are not just quirky gadgets for paranoid parents. No, they are mainstream tools that play a valuable role in teaching children how to live in a world that is saturated with gadgets and media.

Let’s face it – kids are not equipped with the kind of self-regulatory skills that adults generally take for granted. Your average 11-year-old would eat nothing but cake and candy and play with his Wii all day and night if it were up to him (or her). So we impose rules on them; eat this, don’t eat that. Go to school, do your homework. Go to bed at this time, get up at that time.

Kids expect to have to play by certain rules, so it only makes sense that things like their computers and their mobile phones would be subject to the same kind of regulations. With this emergence of parental controls on both computer operating systems and mobile phones, it won’t be long before using them is the norm and not the exception.

Firefly Tries to Grow Up

November 8, 2007 [Permalink]

We’re all quite familiar with the Firefly phone by now; that cute little five button toy phone that actually works. The original Firefly was positioned as a phone for very young children because no self-respecting teen or “tween” would be caught dead with a “kiddie phone.” Regardless, the product was successful, selling thousands of units since its launch in early 2005.

The makers of Firefly are now going after Tweens with a somewhat grown-up version of the phone. The new Firefly “flyPhone” has a full array of dialing buttons on its innovative “electro-luminescent morphing keypad” – which switches between a number pad, multimedia controls, and a gaming controller, depending on what the user is doing. It also has as a built-in multimedia player for music and videos.

The device is also purposefully made small, to fit small hands. However, unlike the original Firefly, which was intended for five- to eight-year-olds, the flyPhone targets kids in the eight to twelve range. Reviews of the device are generally positive, although at least one (PC Mag) says it falls very short on the thing that matters most (at least for adults) – call quality. Sascha Segan, in his review, says:

I found call quality with my AT&T SIM to be really bad. Unusually bad. The phone over-reported signal strength, so it failed to make calls even when it said it still had one bar of signal. The earpiece is loud, and there’s plenty of in-ear voice feedback, but I alternately had buzz, hiss, and dropouts in my calls. Transmissions sounded compressed at best on the other end; at worst, background noise drowned out my voice.

CNNMoney.com also offers a brief review in which they point out that while more grown up than the original Firefly, this is still a kid’s phone: “Word of caution: Do not buy this phone for anyone over the age of 12, as they won’t be caught dead with the still-childish looking device.”

What most reviewers fail to mention is anything about the flaws inherent in handset-based parental controls. Unlike network- (or “account-“) based solutions like AT&T’s Smart Limits or ACE*COMM’s Parent Patrol, putting the parental controls in the phone itself presents a number of potential problems:

  • Handset-based parental controls often require the child’s phone to be on a different network than the parents’ phones. (This is generally not a problem with the Firefly phones, but is the case with Kajeet and the recently defunct Disney Mobile.)
  • Handset-based parental controls usually have to be programmed on the handset itself. That generally means navigating a very restricted set of phone-based menus, which can often be confusing and frustrating. Any time you want to make a change, you have to get the phone from the child and fumble through the menus trying to remember how the navigation works.
  • If the child loses the phone, you have to re-program the replacement all over again.
  • Most kids really hate using a “kiddie phone.”

It remains to be seen how well the new flyPhone will sell, and to see if the company will eventually release a model designed for teenagers. In the meantime, I still prefer the network-based approach.

Parental Controls Defined

November 14, 2007 [Permalink]

I see the term “parental controls” used with increasing frequency lately. I think this is due to the wider adoption of the various parental control technologies for Web surfing, video gaming, computer use, and mobile phones. But people are not always clear about what they mean when they use the term.

Therefore, what follows is a brief primer on what we mean when we say “parental controls” in the context of mobile phones. Keep in mind that not all control types are offered by all parental control vendors. In fact, very few offer them all. Parents shopping around for a parental controls provider should think about what they’re really looking for, and to familiarize themselves with what is available.

The controls discussed below are:

  • Amount of Time Control
  • Number of Text/MMS Messages Control
  • Time of Day Control
  • Contacts Control (Blacklist/Whitelist)
  • Web Filtering Control
  • GPS Tracking
  • Combined Controls

Amount of Time Control

Simply put, this kind of control limits the amount of time the child can spend on the phone. At it’s broadest definition, this can be in the form of a pre-paid account in which the phone goes dead when the minutes are used up. That is really not very effective, as it can promote a kind of binge/starve mentality and it has no bearing on the more important issue of when the child uses the phone. There is also the issue of emergencies; although 911 will work on a pre-paid phone with no minutes, the phone won’t work for lesser urgencies such as calling Mom because soccer practice was canceled or when Dad is running late to pick up the child after school.

On the other hand, Amount of Time controls can be useful in some cases (such as when dealing with a chronic over-user) if broken down into weekly or even daily chunks, and used in conjunction with Time of Day controls.

Number of Text/MMS Messages Control

Basically the same as Amount of Time control, but it applies to number of text or multimedia messages instead of minutes of talk time.

Time of Day Control

This control lets you assign times of the day when the child cannot use the phone. Many people believe this is the most friendly and effective method of controlling mobile phone use, as it doesn’t prevent the child from having fun and staying in contact with friends during appropriate times. However, it does keep them from talking and texting when they should be in school or sleeping. It has “fair” written all over it, and is less likely to produce surly tween angst about not having enough minutes.

Similar controls are now appearing on computer operating systems such as Windows Vista and Apple’s OS X Leopard. No surprise, really, because as long as the parents are reasonable about setting the limits, children don’t really have any recourse. Hello! Bedtime means bedtime.

Contacts Control (Blacklist/Whitelist)

Being able to control who can call the child and who the child can call is one of the original parental control ideas. This was largely what the original Firefly phone was all about – a really basic phone that could communicate with only a selected few other phones (such as parents, siblings, etc.). This kind of control is most popular with parents of very young children who have phones. After all, how can you tell an older kid, like a 13-year-old, that he or she can only call a handful of people that the parents approve of? Teens and even tweens have broad social networks these days, and the idea of having such restrictions do not wash with them.

On the other hand, Contacts Control can be useful for blocking the phones (”blacklisting”) of bullies or other people who may be harassing the child. As well, a phone that has Time of Day controls should also have a white-listable Contacts Control that lets the child call, or be called by, “whitelisted” numbers even when the phone is in a restricted time zone. Imagine, for example, that the child’s phone has a bedtime restriction (say between 9:00 PM and 7:00 AM) and one night he or she is having a sleepover at a friend’s house. The child can’t use the phone to call or text friends long into the night, but if the parents or an older sibling (who would presumably be on the whitelist) needs to call the child, they can.

Web Filtering Control

Many contemporary phones come with mobile Web browsers. Just as PC-based Web browsers can be outfitted with content filters (for blocking pornography, drug references, violence, or whatever else the parents choose to block), so too can mobile browsers. The filtering is usually done through a third party, the most well-known of which is Rulespace. ACE*COMM’s Parent Patrol uses filtering from Rulespace, as does the recently announced “Parental Controls” from Alltel (although in the case of Alltel, it seems like filtering is the only control they offer).

GPS Tracking

A few phones offer GPS tracking, which gives parents the ability to locate their children via a mapping application they view in a Web browser (usually on a “per use” fee basis). This is not really a “parental control,” however, as it doesn’t actually control anything. While it is potentially useful for other reasons, it is just a monitor, not a control. I include it here only because it’s something that comes up in conversations about parental controls.

Combined Controls

Parents looking for parental controls should be familiar with these various types of controls so they can decide what is appropriate for them and their children. Generally speaking, it’s best to combine controls, as they tend to be most effective that way.

Parental Controls Now Available in Cincinnati & Vicinity

November 20, 2007 [Permalink]

Here’s some good news for parents in and around Cincinnati who’ve been looking for a parental control service for their children’s mobile phones. Cincinnati Bell Wireless (CBW) launched “Parental Controls” yesterday. Parental Controls is powered by ACE*COMM’s Parent Patrol application (sponsor of this blog).

According to CBW’s Parental Controls product Web site, the service lets parents:

  • Specify the number of voice minutes and text messages allowed on a weekly or monthly basis;
  • Assign time periods during which calls or text messages may not be sent or received (e.g., sleep time, school hours, etc.);
  • Set controls on the child’s contacts (designating “never allow” and “always allow” numbers)
  • Optionally, create a contacts list of numbers that are the only numbers that can make contact with the child’s phone.

Parents can also opt to receive email notifications when the child’s limits have been reached or a call has been blocked. No special phone is required.

“Parental Controls;” What Does it Mean?

November 27, 2007 [Permalink]

Although this blog uses the term “parental controls” a lot, I’ve never been completely comfortable with it. For one thing, it sounds like a tool used to control parents. But even if most people understand that “parental controls” means controls for parents, it is still unclear what is being controlled. For example, both Apple and Microsoft are making a lot of hay over the parental controls in their latest PC operating systems (OS X Leopard and Windows Vista, respectively). Naturally, those features are there to control the children’s use of the computer.

But is it the children that are being controlled, or the computer? It’s something of an academic question, and most people would agree that the computer is the object of control. Yet despite this logical assertion, it remains in many people’s minds that it is the children who are being controlled.

And that’s where it gets iffy.

Linda Criddle, online safety consultant and author of Look Both Ways; Help Protect Your Family on the Internet, had some interesting things to say about this on her blog back in June of this year:

The phrase “parental control” is negative, pitting parents [and] their children against each other. Nobody wants to be controlled, least of all youth trying to find their own identities and gain a measure of independence. The phrase is also offensive to many parents who don’t want to control their children; they simply want to help them stay safer online.

I think it is this uncertain nature of the term that gives a lot of parental control products – and even discussions about parental controls – a bad rap in some circles. After all, as Criddle implies, the idea of overtly “controlling” children seems heavy handed.

Nay-sayers point out that parental controls are not a substitute for good parenting. Well guess what? Most parental control vendors would probably agree!

It’s true! Parental controls and good parenting are not diametrically opposed, nor does one replace the other. In fact, they work together; parental controls are useful tools within the larger and more complex task of good parenting.

So what is “good parenting?” I won’t even attempt to give a conclusive answer to that whopper, but when it comes to parental controls I will say this: what’s important is how you use them.

With regard to mobile phones, for example, parental controls are primarily intended to help prevent overage charges (by setting reasonable usage limits) and to help prevent usage at inappropriate times (by setting reasonable “blackout” times). If properly designed, the parental controls will not prevent the child from calling emergency numbers (e.g., 911, or parents’ mobiles) if they need to, even when they are in a blackout time or have gone over their usage limits. This way, the kid gets the phone he or she wants, and parents get the security they’re looking for without the worries. Everybody wins.

The operative term in the paragraph above is “reasonable.” Parents who impose limits that are too strict (whether it’s on mobile phones or the home computer) could end up with resentful children who make every attempt to subvert the controls and to push beyond the limits in any way they can. (If you didn’t see that coming, you were never a 12-year-old.)

But if the limits are reasonable, and if the parents have discussed them with the child, there’s a better chance they will be respected and not resented.

Finally, parental controls are not about snooping. Using key loggers, reading your child’s browser history, rummaging through their email, and other invasive measures are in a different vein altogether. Personally, I’m very much against that sort of thing as it absolutely creates distrust and resentment within the family. There may be special cases where it is justified, but I can’t really think of any outside of situations that are already quite desperate and a sign of deeper problems than mobile phone or Internet use.

So if you or your children cringe at the idea of “parental controls,” please keep these ideas in mind. It is the device (computer or mobile phone) that is being controlled, not the child. More importantly, it is a tool in the “good parenting package,” not a weapon to be used against the child.

Reverse 411: What You Should Know

December 4, 2007 [Permalink]

There has been a lot of buzz lately about “reverse 411″ services, as people have come to realize that anyone can use them to obtain the home address of a mobile phone number’s owner. This is of particular concern to parents whose children have and use mobile phones.

It’s a legitimate concern, although I think the risks and dangers involved are overstated.

For one thing, the information one can obtain through a reverse 411 lookup is already publicly available from various regular phone directories and lookups. It reminds me of the story going around in which the BBC consumer advocate TV show “Watchdog” tried to scare people out of using Facebook by bringing in a snoop who specialized in digging up personal information online. The snoop showed another guest, a Facebook user, a notepad with something written on it and asked “is this your home address?” The Facebook user, completely unfazed, replied “Yes. But you could also get that by looking it up in the phone book.”

Another thing to consider is that someone could only do a reverse lookup on your child’s phone number if they actually have the child’s phone number. If your child has a mobile phone, one of the first things you will have (or at least should have) done is educate the child on the importance of keeping the number private. No posting of the number anywhere on Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, or any other social network. No sending the number around in bulk emails. No dialing numbers of people you don’t know. This is “phone number management 101″ for kids (and adults too, for that matter). If you haven’t had that talk with your child yet, do it now. And remember: this is just the starting point for the mobile safety talk.

Still, the possibility exists, however remote, that an unsavory character may somehow obtain your child’s phone number. For this reason, you might want to take steps to have the number removed from the various reverse 411 lookup directories. Just in case. But be warned; it isn’t easy to do so.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of reverse 411 services. Generally speaking, you’ll have to peck your way through the “opt out” sections of each one of them. Below is a partial list to get you started:

  • Google Phonebook Name Removal form. This only removes information from Google’s directory, but the page includes links to other directories where you need to go for similar information removal.
  • Any Who. This is an AT&T sponsored lookup. The Privacy Listing Process page is here.
  • Addresses.com provides many directories, including cell phone and reverse lookups. Unfortunately I could find no opt-out form.
  • Infospace provides a method to remove your listings; search here and here and look your child up on each list. When (if) you find a listing, click the “update or remove” link that should be next to it. There is a verification process (by email) that follows.
  • Peoplefinders.com lets you remove yourself from some of their lists via the process described here. You should also check their privacy policy for more information.
  • PublicRecordsNow.com lets you remove yourself from some of their lists via the process described on their Privacy Policy page.
  • USA-People-Search.com lets you remove your listing by sending a letter (a letter!) to the address listed on this page.
  • US Search has an opt-out program, but it too operates by snail mail.
  • Switchboard.com has an opt-out form here.
  • WhoWhere lets you edit your information and opt out, but only if you’re a registered Lycos user.
  • Whitepages.com does not seem to offer an opt-out. They say they get their information from other sources, so if you opt out of the others, it should (in theory) opt you out of this one.
  • ZoomInfo lets you opt out of some of their listings, as described in their privacy policy.

There are plenty of other lookup sources not listed here. As you can imagine, opting out of all those services is a pretty daunting task, and you have to ask yourself if the risk is really so great as to warrant the effort. After all, if you and your child use good safety practices, the situation in which a creepy stranger is looking up your child’s address via his or her phone number will likely never happen.

I would suggest that there are better and more effective places to direct your energy when it comes to protecting your children, starting with that conversation I mentioned above; the one about keeping phone numbers private.

Further reading:

Anastasia Goodstein on Online Communities and Parental Controls

December 12, 2007 [Permalink]

Anastasia Goodstein is the author of Totally Wired; What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online. She also has a blog related to the book and its topic (although she has recently ceased posting to it).

Goodstein was recently interviewed by Nora Young, the host of CBC Radio’s culture and technology show “Spark.” In the interview, Goodstein discusses some of the differences between what young kids do online, and what tweens and teens do; and she posits that most of it is basically harmless. While it’s true that virtual worlds include a lot of brand and product marketing that is targeted at kids, the host of the show points out that there’s nothing new about that.

A lot of what Goodstein says can be applied to mobile phones. After all, in some respects the only real difference between a phone and a personal computer is the degree of portability. You can talk through your computer (using Skype or webcam chatting) and you can surf the Web on many mobile phones (although the experience is, for most people, awkward and unpleasant in terms of usability).

The interview gets particularly interesting when Goodstein points out that parents (read: adults) are coming to this kind of technology later in life. As a result, they have a very different experience than do kids, who are growing up with it. She calls kids “digital natives” and grownups “digital immigrants.” She says this to underscore the extent to which parents often don’t “get it” when it comes to why kids are so involved with online and virtual communities. The typical parental response is often to disapprove, or to become paranoid about the risks and dangers, primarily because it is a world that we are not native to.

However, that doesn’t mean Goodstein endorses a wide-open, laissez-faire approach to kids online. At about the 12:00 mark in the interview, the host asks her what she thinks of people who don’t understand and don’t like all this online stuff, and who think that kids would be better off if they were kept away from it all. Goodstein replies:

I completely support setting limits, and I think that’s absolutely necessary on screen time, but to go to the extreme of unplugging kids feels like something a digital immigrant would say.

I would say the same thing about mobile phones.

You can listen to the interview here (running time, about 13 minutes).

Kids Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep

January 9, 2008 [Permalink]

Back in August I wrote about the phenomenon of kids losing sleep because they’re awake at all hours talking and texting on their mobile phones. Over at Science Daily they reported on more evidence along those lines:

A new study finds that cell phone use after bedtime is very prevalent among adolescents, and its use is related to increased levels of tiredness after one year.

According to the report, a recent study by Jan Van den Bulck, PhD, shows a direct link between cell phone use and tiredness among the 1656 school children studied. The numbers relayed by the Science Daily article are a bit hard to follow, but the conclusion is clear. According to Dr. Van de Bulck:

Communication and staying in touch are important for young people, and they now have the technology to stay “connected” more or less permanently. Taking a mobile phone to your bedroom is not trivial. They spend a lot of time “connecting” to other people, and some of them do this all hours of the night.

You can download the study here (registration required).

Clearly, what is needed is some kind of control over when kids can use their phones. Some parents do it the “old fashioned” way; at bedtime every night they insist the child leave his or her phone outside of the bedroom, such as connected to its charger in an open area like the kitchen or living room.

Other parents rely on technological solutions. Namely, parental control services in which they can set “down times” during which the phone will not function. Typically, parents will set aside bedtime hours as down time, but some even use the feature to block phone use during school hours or study time.

Ideally, the service won’t completely block access to the phone. For example, Parent Patrol lets the parents set “always available” status on some contact numbers (such as parents and other trusted adults). Those “always available” phone numbers are not affected by the down time status of the child’s phone. This ensures that the child can use the phone to call those people (or be called by them) in the case of an emergency or other urgent need, even during a “down time.”

Parents who think that simply using a pre-paid plan is enough to keep their kids from over-using their phones should think about this. The problem is not just that kids tend to use their phones too much, but that they use them at inappropriate times. Using pre-pay alone has no effect on that second, and perhaps more important aspect of kids and phone use.

Further reading:
- NDRI.com
- EurekAlert!
- Psychiatric Times

Porn Industry Looks To Mobile Market

January 31, 2008 [Permalink]

If you still think that mobile phone-based porn is hard to find or only available to people in futuristic movies, word from Reuters is that mobile porn is about to get a big boost in North America.

According to the article, mobile porn is big in Europe where it was a $775 million industry in 2007, but has yet to really take off on the western side of the pond where sales were a mere (by comparison) $26 million. That is about to change, if the adult entertainment industry gets its way. A conference held in Miami earlier this week, the Third Annual Mobile Adult Content Congress, focused on opportunities for porn in the mobile industry. The conference was attended by a mix of adult content industry and mobile industry insiders.

From the Reuters story:

“It will be impossible to stop the adult business exploitation of mobile entertainment,” said Gregory Piccionelli, a lawyer specializing in adult entertainment at law firm Piccionelli & Sarno.

He predicted that U.S. consumers may soon be offered free porn on mobile phones alongside paid services like live video or “adult dates,” a term for prearranged sex with strangers.

Pressure to open the market is coming largely from the adult entertainment industry, which sees plentiful revenue opportunities. But mobile service providers are worried about offending subscribers. A case in point is Telus, one of Canada’s top mobile providers, who took down its fledgling soft porn service in early 2007 due to subscriber complaints. An interesting side note to that story is that, according to Telus, many of the people who complained were unaware that such material was already widely available on their Web-enabled phones; they thought the Telus service was the only source for Telus customers.

On the other hand, some North American mobile providers are drooling over the revenue opportunities – estimated to hit $1.5 billion in Europe by 2012. They’re also being nudged in that direction from overall pressure to open their markets to more types of content, including TV, music, and games.

Two technological advances are pushing things in this direction. First is the availability of mobile devices with advanced designs for multimedia, such as the Apple iPhone and the Garmin nüvifone. In tandem are the advances in tools to shield such content from minors, such as the Parental Controls service recently launched by Cincinnati Bell Wireless.

What seems certain is that a lot more adult content will be easily available on our mobile phones soon, and parents need to educate themselves on just how easy it is to find such material. More importantly, they need to learn how easy it is to block such content on their children’s phones.

Keep reading. That’s what this blog is all about.

Cutting Off Gives Some Perspective

April 16, 2008 [Permalink]

The Boston Globe recently ran a story about parents who cut off their children’s ability to send text messages after they got walloped with huge bills from their mobile service providers. It seems like a drastic measure, but when that bill comes in for $1000 or more, what’s a parent to do?

There are ways to moderate your kids’ mobile usage without completely cutting them off. Sadly, it seems that many parents don’t do much investigating into what their options are (I’ve talked about them on this blog), and a lot of mobile providers don’t seem interested in offering services that would make it easier on parents.

Things are improving, however. Clearly, parents want an easy way to cap their children’s mobile usage and spending, and as the Globe article indicates, some wise mobile providers are starting to respond by offering parental control services. But until such services are widely available, a lot of parents will resort to draconian measures, at least in the short term.

The Globe article recounts the story of a 15-year-old who ran up an $800 dollar bill in one month, mostly from texting. Her mother responded by turning off text messaging for a few weeks, during which the girl, Tori DeSantis of Burlington, MA, suffered a “texting coma.” The episode, according to the article, caused the girl’s mother to re-examine her relationship with her daughter and the way she was parenting.

More interesting is that Tori, while she wants her texting back, has re-evaluated her relationship with her phone. During her “coma,” she was put off by how her friends would spend so much of their time texting other people instead of enjoying their time with the people they were with. She came to realize the kind of disconnectedness all this so-called connectedness was creating. “It’s kind of annoying,” Tori said. “But I’m like, I was kind of like that at one time.”

It looks like there’s hope for our kids after all!

More on Losing Sleep

February 27, 2008 [Permalink]

I’ve written a few times about the problems of kids losing sleep because of their mobile phones. The problem usually comes about when they take their mobiles to bed with them and hide under the sheets texting their friends long into the night.

Some new evidence has emerged that sheds more light on the problem of mobile phones and sleep; and this time it concerns all of us, kids and adults. According to a study conducted by American and Swedish academics, the radiation emitted by mobile phones can have a profound affect on our sleep patterns:

…monitoring under laboratory conditions showed the initial ‘light’ phases of sleep in the subjects were affected. In addition, “exposure to 884 MHz wireless signals, components of sleep, believed to be important for recovery from daily wear and tear, are adversely affected.” The research also found that those exposed to mobile phones during their sleep appear to have more headaches, than those not exposed.

The study monitored the sleeping patterns of 36 subjects, men and women from 18-45 years old. It is unclear whether or not the subjects had to actually talk on the phones or if they merely had to be in close proximity to one. It should also be noted that the study appears to have been sponsored, or at least encouraged, by UK company Exradia, who make a device that supposedly blocks cell phone radiation.

Regardless of the uncertainties, what remains is that it’s a bad idea to let your kids take their mobile phones to bed with them.

Big Brother Knows Best in New York

April 29, 2008 [Permalink]

The total ban on mobile phones in New York City schools was upheld by the appeals court this week. While I can certainly agree that mobile phones and schools don’t mix, the total ban outlaws phones even when they are turned off. That means kids won’t have their phones on the way to and home from school, nor during after school activities (unless they are able to go home first).

Some critics argue that the ban is prejudicial to kids in poorer, inner-city schools; those that use metal detectors and other scanning devices. Kids at “non-scanning” schools simply keep their phones in their pockets and no one’s the wiser.

It’s a tough call. Anybody who’s ever spent time in a tough urban school knows how hard it is for teachers to maintain control and authority in that environment. But a total ban, especially one that affects kids outside of the school environment, just seems wrong.