THE BLOG
10/09/2012 07:59 BST | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Safeguarding the Next Generation - iChildren

Children today certainly have an increased awareness of technology, yet their perceptions of danger are not fully developed as they have not had the life experiences needed to make them risk averse.

In the hype around the latest technological developments, we often tend to concentrate on the impressive rather than the worrisome. 'Larger screens, faster processors, unique interfaces, cheaper devices' - all buzzwords that generate excitement and build anticipation amongst consumers wishing to keep up to date with the latest technology and gadgets. Often however, what is left in the dust are those important questions concerning the impact such devices and technological advancements really have on society, and in particular, society's most vulnerable members - children.

The desirability of smartphones today is obvious to all, but research shows that the youngest demographics are also already developing an appetite for such devices. Findings, taken from a survey which polled 1,876 parents across the UK, suggest that a fifth of all children aged 16 or under now own a smartphone, with 9% of parents buying their child a mobile phone or tablet to prevent them from being bullied or ridiculed at school for not having one. The research further revealed that of those children owning smartphones, 16 percent were aged 8-10, and 29% aged 11-13, a sure fire indicator that children are embracing technologies at an ever younger age.

In fact, not only are children using mobile technologies at an ever younger age, they are being encouraged to do so by their families, as Disney recently discovered. In July, the iconic childhood brand commissioned a survey of 2,000 British parents which interestingly found that 36 percent considered apps to be an "integral" part of their family life.

Indeed, smartphones and tablets today are becoming exactly that, a way for parent and child to engage in immersive entertainment. I have even overheard a number of parents jokingly refer to their iPhone/iPad as "the stand-in babysitter". But this is where caution needs to be executed.

While an adult is capable of understanding the risks such devices pose, the same cannot be said for children. Children today certainly have an increased awareness of technology, yet their perceptions of danger are not fully developed as they have not had the life experiences needed to make them risk averse.

For this reason educating kids about the repercussions of accessing unsecure content and responding to fraudulent messages is not as straight forward as it is with adults. Without a base level of awareness about the risks and negative consequences, children are more susceptible to security threats. Online scammers are now exploiting such vulnerabilities, lacing online games and popular apps with malware and viruses, in an attempt to enter the backdoor of devices owned by parents.

It is schemes like this that force us to address a number of growing concerns in order to ensure vulnerable children are protected. European mobile customers now stand more at risk than ever from fraud, following a huge recorded rise in text message spam. 45 million spam text messages are sent every day across Europe, and recent estimates indicate that up to 70% of unwanted text messages are attempts at financial fraud. These are certainly worrying signs that will impact UK mobile users across the board, yet children arguably stand more at risk than ever before, after all, the security of a mobile device is only as strong as its weakest link, something that suddenly becomes incredibly frail when sitting in the hands of a child.

So where exactly does the responsibility lie and how can we safeguard our children today? Interestingly, this is very much a two way relationship, and, in order to prove successful, requires the efforts of both the operator and the mobile user. In fact, most major carriers today offer phones and services that promise easy family controls. Every carrier has a different combination of features and services, but generally speaking the aim is to provide parents with the power to: restrict access to inappropriate applications and websites, limit usage and provide access to location tracking services.

O2 has recently adopted a common child protection strategy, ensuring all youngsters can use services safely, and parents can rest assured their children's mobile interactions are protected. Not only are they providing parents, teachers and children with the information and tools needed to make safe decisions when using mobile phones or accessing Internet connected services, but they are also empowering parents to educate their children about privacy and online safety. It is crucial that operators continue to develop such schemes to ensure that children can safely use their device, with complete piece of mind from their parents.

Mobile users also play a crucial role in helping to ease the mobile security vulnerabilities faced by children today, and just as operators need to protect their users from the latest attacks, the onus is also on the individual to ensure that their device is completely child-proof. Parents of young smartphone users should check out the Restrictions menu to manage access to individual apps, control purchases made online and disable location services for any or all apps. There are also a number of other active steps that adults and parents alike can take to protect their children, including:

• Educate children about the realities of mobile fraud - Text messages offering large sums of money or the opportunity to win the latest and greatest Apple product, may be extremely tempting to children, yet they are more often than not just spam and should never be responded to directly. If such messages are received, children should report them immediately to a parent.

• Download security apps such as Android's Play Safe - This app, for example, doesn't completely child-proof the phone, as it gives children access to personal messages and photos. It does however lock the Internet browser and ensures children cannot download inappropriate or malicious applications.

• Set some usage rules of your own - Items to consider include setting a curfew on any smartphone use and keeping the recharging cable out of your child's bedroom.

While it used to be the case that you would tell your child not to talk to strangers on the street, these days it is just as important to be vigilant about their activities on smart devices. The internet can be a dangerous place for children, yet with a little due care and responsibility we can all help to ensure that it remains a great source of education and entertainment, capable of enhancing family life.