Parents: Beware the internet and mobile phones!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

On the occasion of Safer Internet Day 2007 (6 February), Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding writes on the risks and opportunities from recent trends in internet technology with regard to children. 

Nowadays, the internet is cropping up everywhere, offering undreamt of opportunities. It’s becoming a great tool for communicating, education and entertainment. However, it has a darker side, particularly for our youngsters, who are among the heaviest internet users. At any moment, our kids can stumble upon illegal or pornographic content. That nice friend in the chatroom could in fact turn out to be a dangerous paedophile. How can we protect our children from such online dangers? Here, I am speaking to you not only as the Commissioner for Information Society and Media, but also as a concerned mother-of-three.

The internet has been changing dramatically in the last years. New services such as blogs, Wikipedia, My Space, You Tube, and games have increased the internet’s connectivity, allow social networking and permit surfers to create their own content. Blogs have doubled every five months for the last two years; the use of social networking websites is multiplying year on year; and over the past three years communication between web users has become the largest source of internet traffic.

Children and young people are active and enthusiastic users of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for chatting and sharing personal information. This provides a variety of positive opportunities for participation, creativity, education. It also allows communication between young people across national, religious and cultural borders. However, with 50% of European parents declaring that their under 18-aged children use the internet, the potential access to harmful or illegal content online is a serious problem. And nearly 20% of European parents say that their child has come across such content online. We, as parents, have to stay vigilant. 

We, at the European Commission, have been at the forefront of making the internet safer for our children already for a number of years. Through our Safer Internet initiative, we have set up a European network of 21 national hotlines, which allows users to anonymously report illegal content to be passed to the appropriate body for action. According to INHOPE, the International Association of Internet Hotlines, about 65,000 reports were referred to national and international law enforcement agencies during 2005 alone for further action and investigation.

Every year we dedicate one day to raise awareness of this important initiative. The annual ‘Safer Internet Day’ will be celebrated for the 4th time this year on 6 February. The highlight of this day will be the worldwide blogathon which will involve contributions from almost 40 countries in Europe and around the world. In the framework of a competition launched in October 2006, more than 200 schools in 25 countries across the globe have been working in pairs, using technology to cross geographical borders to create internet safety awareness material. On Safer Internet Day, all of the projects they have produced will be uploaded to the blogathon.

The blogathon is just one of a number of events which will take place across the world on Safer Internet Day. The United Kingdom, for example, will organise a conference titled ‘Crossing Borders and Dissolving Boundaries: Promoting Safe and Responsible ICT Use by Children and Young People’. The conference aims to discuss the risks and opportunities associated with ICT use and social networking. In The Netherlands HRH Princess Maxima is the special guest at an event featuring theatre, music and stories; in Slovenia, young people are showcasing art projects and Slovenian national television is broadcasting internet safety clips. In all, 100 organisations in 40 countries worldwide will celebrate ‘Safer Internet Day‘.

However, the internet is not the only communications tool which could negatively affect the wellbeing of our children. In the last few years, the use of mobile phones by young people has also increased dramatically. According to a Eurobarometer survey of May 2006, 70% of European youngsters aged 12-13 years and 23% of children aged 8-9 years own a mobile phone. In the UK, the average age for children to be given their first mobile phone is around eight. And don’t forget how mobile phones themselves have evolved recently. Handsets can now be used for video messaging, entertainment services (downloading games, music, and videos), access to the internet and location-based services. 

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.

As Commissioner for Information Society and Media as well as a mother I feel responsible for the wellbeing of your children. Apart from the initiatives already mentioned, there is more on the way, such as a single European telephone number for missing children. Though we already have a lot of tools in place to create a safer environment for our children, parents, stay vigilant! 

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