Children’s charities: Fighting your child’s digital corner 

Online safety expert John Carr OBE reveals two key tech issues that are the focus for children’s organisations across Europe.

Nothing stands still, least of all technology. For that reason, children’s organisations are constantly monitoring (by that I really mean trying to monitor) how things are changing so that we can help parents and, of course, children themselves to understand the way the world is working now or will work tomorrow.

As part of the UK’s Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS) and the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online (eNACSO), I work with a number of children’s organisations – including Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and the NSPCC – that are fighting for safe and equal access to the internet and other digital technologies for children and young people everywhere.

With digital media convergence gathering pace, members of CHIS and eNACSO are taking an active interest in the increasing number of devices that can connect to the internet, as well as the different types of services that are available online. Two emerging issues are content filtering on Wi-Fi connections and online payments.

1. Sidestepping filters with Wi-Fi

Some time ago – in 2004, to be precise – the UK’s mobile phone companies introduced filtering on to their networks to try to make sure that children and young people under the age of 18 could not access websites or services that were not meant for them (things like gambling and pornography).

On the whole, the system worked well. But in recent years, as smartphones have started to become the handsets of choice, so the old order has been challenged. All the newest smartphones have Wi-Fi, or wireless connectivity, built-in.

If you have Wi-Fi built into your mobile, it is simple to sidestep any filtering that your mobile provider has installed. Your son or daughter could do this by simply using their phone in any of the shops or cafés on the high street, or at railway stations and bus depots, that now provide free Wi-Fi access to anyone within reach of their signal who logs on to their network. They might even be taking advantage of your neighbours’ wireless internet – if they have not made it secure it could be available for use in every room in your house.

So, whilst you think your child is protected by the filters that their mobile provider offers, they could actually be accessing a wide range of adult content while they’re out and about… or even when they’re just upstairs at home.

Several years ago, we began pressing the Wi-Fi providers to start copying the filtering policies that the mobile network operators had already put in place to help protect children and young people from adult content. For a while, little progress was made, but recently the Wi-Fi providers seem to be more interested, and we are hopeful of announcements in the UK in the near future.

2. Pocket money in the digital world

Another area that is in rapid flux is the world of online payments. With so much good stuff to buy on the internet, and usually at better prices, more and more parents, quite rightly, want to give their children their pocket money in a way that enables them to spend it online.

Parents also want to help their children to understand how to manage their money and not feel that they can just pick up mum or dad’s credit card whenever they want to download something from iTunes, for example.

Yet there are few agreed standards governing children as economic agents online and there are even fewer controls to ensure that minors are not buying products or services (such as pornography or cigarettes) over the internet that they would never be able to buy in the shops because their appearance would give them away.

Both CHIS and eNACSO think that vendors of age restricted goods and services should introduce proper age verification tools. The UK’s online gambling industry has been brilliantly successful in doing this. Almost no other sector has been.

So, despite many, many pleas, I’m afraid I have no good news to report on this front. We need the banks, the credit card companies and the big online retailers to go into a huddle and sort this out. In the meantime, parents need to keep a close eye on what their children are buying online – and that includes via apps on their mobiles.