Tuesday 26 September 2017

The tech solutions that can stop your children falling into 'sexting' traps

There are technical solutions to monitoring or preventing certain forms of communication on kids’ devices (Stock picture)
There are technical solutions to monitoring or preventing certain forms of communication on kids’ devices (Stock picture)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

For parents, it has become an unexpected cause of worry. Children as young as nine are sharing, or face pressure to share, explicit photos with others through their phone, tablet or iPod.

Or such was the message that the director of services for the Irish Society for the Prevention Of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), Caroline O'Sullivan, gave to an Oireachtas committee last week.

"The levels of stress and anxiety created by reputational damage from sexting is evident from calls to Childline, the support line, and through our face-to-face work," said Ms O'Sullivan.

"Young people are feeling pressurised to share self-generated sexual images, with many considering it the new online version of flirting. Schools report that girls are self-generating images of themselves and these are being shared amongst students. Some girls are feeling pressure from their friends to send an image but are then often criticised for this behaviour."

So what can parents do? Is there any way of intervening to provide a safer environment?

There are technical solutions to monitoring or preventing certain forms of communication on kids' devices.

For example, you can get a complete look at everything your child is doing on their phone, including all Snapchat messages, with mSpy (mSpy.com). However, this is pricey. It will cost around €150 a year on subscription and you'll have to download it onto your child's device.

Other apps work too, but they're limited. For example, Pumpic shows you what your kid is doing on Snapchat, but only if you give them a 'rooted' Android phone. (In other words, it won't properly work on an iPhone, an iPod, an iPad or an Android phone that's just out of the box.)

There are also umpteen other services that will let you tap into what your kids are seeing, saying or receiving on basic SMS and MMS through the network. The problem with these services is that kids don't bother using traditional phone networks, or SMS, to communicate with friends. These days, it's all Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp.

For some reason, parents often don't realise that such services aren't the domain of phones, but almost anything with a mobile internet connection.

So while grown-ups feel they're protecting their kids by not giving them a phone, they readily hand them alternative gadgets, such as an iPod Touch or a tablet. Such devices are exactly the same for the most common forms of communication used by kids, such as Snapchat.

There are other challenges attached to technical interventions in your child's mobile device.

A 10-year-old will accept it without fuss. But most parents will admit that a relationship with their 13- or 14-year-old is much more complicated, with growing expectations of privacy taking root.

There are also practical hurdles in making such monitoring activities pay off.

A child or teenager will most probably know that their phone is being monitored. The older they are, the more this means that they will look to other devices as their primary means of communication with the rest of their peer group.

As for the scale of the problem facing Irish kids, there isn't a lot of empirical evidence other than the testimony of experts such as the ISPCC's Caroline O'Sullivan.

However, one of the most comprehensive studies relating to the numbers of Irish kids sexting, or being subject to unwanted illicit imagery, was published in 2015.

The Net Children Go Mobile research reports that almost half of 15- and 16-year-olds have "seen" sexual imagery online. However, the figure is much lower for 13- and 14-year-olds, 80pc of whom say they have not seen sexual imagery online, with 90pc saying they have never encountered 'sexting'.

Other surveys report varying results. A UK survey this month by insurance firm Row.co.uk claims that up to a quarter of primary school children have seen, or have engaged in, sexting.

Should some of the services themselves be doing more to help combat the problem? Mobile operators and social networks say that they have strict policies against posting or accessing adult content publicly online. But for privacy reasons, the same strictures are not in place for messaging activities.

This has irked governments in other countries. In December, British culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said that mobile operators and social networks "should ban" sexting for those under the age of 18.

"There is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent (them) being transmitted," he said.

The best way of protecting your child may simply be to talk to them.

Irish Independent

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