Internet safety on mobile phones

Remember why you first agreed to get your child a mobile? Safety probably had something to do with it - you could check on what they were up to.

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Mobiles come with new things for parents to worry about - namely Internet safety, theft, bullying and who your kids are chatting to without supervision (never mind why their phone runs out of credit faster than you can top it up and always goes to voicemail when you really need to talk to them).

Now smartphones have upped the ante considerably. They're essentially handheld computers, so worries about your child stumbling across pornographic or violent content, or being groomed in chatrooms, on their computer now apply equally to their phone. No matter how clued up you are about internet safety on your home computer, you need to get similarly clued up about your child's phone if you want to keep them safe in the cyber-world. 

Mobile phones: parents' checklist

First, you need to decide whether you want your child to use Pay As You Go or whether you'd rather sign up for a contract so that you receive an itemised monthly bill. The latter may well be a better option for younger children.

And then make sure you know the answers to the following questions:

  • Does the phone have Internet access?

All UK mobile phone companies have to provide an Internet filter on their phones to help block potentially harmful stuff like pornography. But - and this is the important bit for parents - most operators don't activate the filter unless you ask them to.

  • Is Bluetooth enabled?

Bluetooth enables your child's mobile phone to find and talk to other Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones in the vicinity. If it's activated, it means your child could receive unexpected and unwanted messages, and any personal information stored on your child's phone - for example, their contact list - could be vulnerable. Switching off the Bluetooth option makes the phone 'invisible' to other Bluetooth users.

  • Is the phone registered for a child or adult user?

If the phone is registered to a child user, it will automatically not be able to access content rated 18+. But if your child has a phone that has been passed down to them from you or another adult, no such block will be in place. Brave the piped music and endless wait and talk to your mobile phone operator to find out if the Internet filter is activated.

Check whether parental controls are set as default on your child's mobile - if not, ask for them to be switched on.

  • Can the phone access chat rooms, or games where users chat to one another?

Are these moderated? Chat rooms provided by your child's mobile operator or its partners which do not have 18+ age-restrictions must be moderated. Find out about the operator's moderation policies and systems. Be aware that chat rooms accessed on the internet via your child's mobile (ie which are not provided by the mobile operator or its partners) may not be moderated.

  • Is 'location services' switched off?

If you agreed to get your child a mobile precisely so that you could keep tabs on where they are, then you've got to weigh up the pros and cons, safety-wise, of your child's phone having location services switched on. It's a tricky one - Vodafone has a detailed parents' guide on the safety and privacy issues raised by location services.

Essentially, mobile phone location apps aren't necessarily provided by mobile networks and both GPS and WiFi can locate and communicate your child's location without their mobile phone operator being aware of it. Check the phone's settings, so you know where location services are on or off. Alternatively, disable the GPS or WiFi on your child's mobile.

With your teenagers, stress to them that if they use a location service alongside their social networking profile, e.g. Facebook, everyone on their 'friends' list will know where they are at any time, so that they have to be 100% certain they only allow 'real' friends who they know and trust to locate them.

  • Does your child know that they should never give out their mobile number to strangers?

Our parents told us never to talk to strangers and we in turn need to stress to our children that they mustn't give away any personal information to people they've never met before via their mobile and the internet.

Vodafone and other mobile phone operators have parents' guides that merit close reading and Childnet International has a longer, more detailed version of this checklist.

And finally...

If the lack of control over the whole Internet-on-mobiles malarkey gives you the vapours, you could always resort to 'spy' software - you get a complete report of every text sent, call made and URL visited from your child's mobile. The potential downside is that you risk invading your child's privacy and, ethics aside, ruining any chance you may have of them being open with you. Another tricky parenting conundrum. You can discuss this, and other issues, in Talk: child internet safety.


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Last updated: over 1 year ago