Commission tackles cell-phone risks to children

The 2007 edition of Safer Internet Day focuses on mobile phones and child safety.

Safer Internet Day (SID), which is celebrated for the fourth time on 6 February 2007, brings together a network of partners in 43 countries around the globe. It aims to raise awareness of safety and security issues on the internet, such as child safety and mobile phones. This is the focal point of this year’s SID. In the summer of 2006, the Commission held a consultation on the issue, which stakeholders from civil society and industry attended. More problematic aspects of the way that mobile phones are changing the lifes of children and young people include: 

  • The emergence of the mobile internet, including web browsers, chat clients and e-mails, which allows for new ways of getting and staying in touch. While this is mostly positive and fosters the emergence of social networks, it can also be abused, such as by sexual predators who want to get in touch with young children.
  • Violent images or movies being swapped between mobile-phone owners. These are either downloaded from the internet (trailers of adult movies and so-called snuff movies, in which real or allegedely real murders, executions and scenes of sexual violence are depicted) or produced by youngsters themselves and then passed on in a snowball system (‘happy slapping’ movies, which depict violence against unsuspecting passers-by, lewd images of sexuality and intrusions into other teenagers’ private lives).
  • This points to the power of images in the age of omnipresent phonecams and easy transfer of pictures. This development has taken place too fast for conventions and moral codes to keep step, which has led to widespread abuse of the new technologies.
  • The development of moral codes, comparable to the ‘netiquette‘ code for the internet, could at least deal with the mass phenomenon of harassment using mobile devices.
  • All these issues are closely linked with the issue of privacy in electronic communications or e-privacy. The virtual reality of the internet has already partly replaced material reality. Practices such as ‘mobbing’, harassment and blackmailing are not only technically easier online, but there are also less moral safeguards. The spread of the mobile internet has also resulted in online users, particularly young people, being permanently exposed to spam, spyware and potentially malicious software.

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding said: "Potential risks faced by children accessing the internet through mobile phones remain the same as with the fixed line, but with additional challenges. The big difference between the mobile phone compared to the internet is the very personal nature of mobiles. It is difficult for parents to supervise access and contacts in the same way as they would do with a PC at home. In a survey among 7-15 year-olds produced by 'Save the Children Finland', nearly 20% of children said that they never talk about mobile-phone use with their parents. 

"That's why I decided to take action and also make the use of mobile phones safer for our children. I have been working with operators, content providers, child safety organisations and other stakeholders to draw up a document which commits the industry to work towards safer mobile phones for our children. To this end, 15 leading European mobile operators will sign an agreement on how to protect minors using mobile phones on Safer Internet Day 2007."

In a 2005 Eurobarometer survey, almost 50% of all children in the EU and candidate countries were found to have used the internet within the past month. 36% of children aged 0-17 owned a mobile phone. 

In the same survey, about two thirds of parents answered that they thought their child would know what to do if confronted with an uncomfortable situation on the internet, such as being approached by a stranger. 

A recent research article found that, in the US, 42% of youngsters aged 10 to 17 and surfing the internet are subject to unwanted and wanted exposure to online pornography. 

As all digital media converges, all kinds of content are about to be delivered to different devices, including cellphones. Besides many advantages, this entails greater risks for children.

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