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Children using phones/tablets• What are the dangers?

By: Charles Benoni Okine
Children love it when they have access to a phone. But what are they watching on it?
Children love it when they have access to a phone. But what are they watching on it?

LISTEN to a child with the parent crying and enquire why and you will realise in many instances that, the tears may be flowing on the cheeks of the child not because of a candy but because the child wants access to a phone. Unlike the past, children of today do not want the toy phones, they prefer the real phones that mummy or daddy uses.

The tears of children can be irritating and, therefore, to avoid that, many parents succumb to such pressure and release their phones to them to prevent that ordeal of having to either beat them or shut them down.

To others, it’s a show of affluence or deep love for the kids. This craze has been the norm in the last few years. The phenomenon has driven down the sale of toy phones for kids because they will throw it to the ground to register their dislike for it.

Adult pics/videos
Some, if not all, parents belong to many groups (school, church, party) on the various social media platforms. Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp are among the many others in the system. Some members in the groups send very obscene videos or pictures even when it is against the rules governing the platform created.

But it happens and those who do not want them, delete. However, sometimes, many of the parents do not know when a friend has sent something obscene. It may be the same time that the parent is forced to surrender his/her phone to the child. In the end, the kid is exposed to something he/she is not supposed to see.

In a chat with one kid, it was revealed to the chagrin of his parents that he watches porn on the phone and not to play games in many instances. This is common but many parents of today do not care much about the effect.

Apps and kids
Apps aimed at kids are often criticised for having a negative impact on psychological development as well as being a threat to privacy, while app creators are accused of trying to hook children in order to boost revenue.

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) in the US is one of the loudest voices taking a stand. For instance, it wanted Facebook to discontinue Messenger Kids, a service aimed at those aged under 13-years.

That, however, did not succeed, but that didn’t stop it from pointing out that young children were not ready to have social media accounts as they don’t know how to “navigate the complexities of online relationships”. It said apps can exacerbate problems including depression and unhealthy sleep habits.

Even YouTube for Kids has come under fire for containing disturbing content related to school shootings and suicide. CCFC said the main concern was that the app was often trusted by parents because it claimed to make it “safer and simpler” for young people to browse videos.

The alarm bells
The CEO of Zyalin Group, the company which offers parental controls services, Mr John Molloy, told Mobile World Live: “The biggest privacy and security risk for kids is that they usually have a carefree attitude to downloading apps, without evaluating the risks associated with what they are accepting as part of the terms and conditions.”

“It is naive to expect that kids will evaluate the permissions required and then decide not to use the app based on their evaluation. Therefore, it is highly likely that they are downloading apps that require them to provide permission to access their camera, their gallery, their microphone, their location and other private data just so that they can play a game on their phone,” he said.

This is extremely worrying and should ring alarm bells for all parents whose children have access to a tablet or phone. This is because such negative exposures derail the kids from doing the right things in society.

Developers and revenue
However, it is imperative for parents to know that the developers of these apps are doing so primarily for money. For instance, CCFC criticised YouTube’s practice of not only collecting user data, but also generating “significant profits from kid-targeted advertising”. It has also urged the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate android apps which they believe trick kids into making in-app purchases and watching adverts.

This brings us to unscrupulous developers who will likely be mining data for revenue and bombarding users with ads. Then there are those who try to get kids addicted so they will make in-app purchases and keep up engagement metrics.

A developmental behavioural paediatrician at the University of Michigan, Mr Jenny Radesky, said: “The childhood app market is a wild west, with a lot of apps appearing more focused on making money than the child’s play experience. This has important implications for advertising regulation, the ethics of child app design, as well as how parents discern which children’s apps are worth downloading.”

In 2018 more than 200 psychologists wrote to the American Psychological Association to call attention to the “unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children on social media and video games”.

So whose responsibility is it to make sure kids are gaining only the benefits of apps?

Mr Molloy argues that while regulators need to make policies around those apps more robust, in the short term, the responsibility for protecting children often lands with parents.

“If parents are willing to provide their kids with access to the Internet, then they need to ensure they apply the necessary controls to minimise their kids’ risk of exposure to inappropriate content and privacy violation.”

He added that online safety should be an ongoing conversation between parents and children, and parents need to know what their kids are doing online just as much as what they are doing offline.

It must be noted that while developers are not likely to grow a conscience overnight and make apps safer and ad-free, such fines will certainly serve as a deterrent.

Way forward
According to MobileWorld, what’s more regulators need to work on tightening the rules around apps aimed at kids to make sure they are not collecting their data; or asking for access to location or camera unless essential for the app; or manipulating children into spending more time or money on them, to help save an entire generation from psychological problems and the dangers of being stalked, and parents from going broke.

Parents have the ultimate responsibility in all this because they are adults. However, they have a choice to make.