WASPA helping make mobile phones safe for children and teens

Published on: 26th September 2011

The problem of children and teenagers accessing pornography via their cellphones is becoming widespread. Although no recent statistics exist for mobile devices, when one combines the overall porn statistics (for example, 90 percent of eight to 16 year olds have viewed porn online, often by mistake when doing homework) to the near ubiquity of cellphones, one gets an idea of the problem.

An additional factor is that, as a study by the Youth Research Unit at Unisa shows, there is a high incidence of active online solicitation of youth in the 12 to 25 age group the Internet. There is evidence that mobile phones are being used as an extension of that type of behavior – one only has to think of the many press reports of unscrupulous adults using the chat sites inappropriately. Think also of the infamous “Outoilet” sex chat site, run from Russia and popular with South African teenage mobile phone users.

Another key fact is that the mobile porn industry is growing strongly. “Mobile phones are a great boon, not least because they empower users so effectively,” says Russel Stromin, head of the Code of Conduct Committee of the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA). “The problem comes when that device is operated by somebody who is not yet an adult and so is vulnerable in a number of ways. As the industry body for the mobile applications industry, we encourage our members to provide parents with tools to protect their children.”

Globally, the mobile service providers have taken the lead in this area, with the Mobile Alliance against Child Sexual Abuse Content being launched at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2008. In South Africa, some operators have developed ways for parents to block their children from accessing adult content via their handsets:

  • Vodacom’s parental control can be accessed by dialing 111*123# from the cell phone you want to block or call Vodacom customer care on 082111.
  • To block an MTN handset, dial *101# from the handset you would like to restrict content on and follow the easy-to-use menu prompts.
  • Cell C and 8ta do not have this functionality yet. 8ta says it will be launching parental control in the first quarter of 2012. Note, however, that Internet access can be de-activated on any mobile. Simply request this from your provider.

All the cellular providers are able to block access to specific sites but it would be up to them to decide. Sites that are found to operate illegally may be blocked for everybody. Sites that contain adult content will be blocked for those phones with parental controls activated. Simply dial your provider’s customer service number and request they block the site.

Stromin notes that these measures can help parents prevent their children from accessing adult content on sites, but they do not affect other inappropriate use of cell phones, for example sexting. Sexting is the practice of sending flirtatious SMSs that contain explicit pictures of the sender. Again, the statistics are frightening for parents. 22 percent of teen girls and 20 percent of boys have sent nude or semi-nude photos of themselves over the Internet or their phones.

“Apart from anything else, these pictures seldom remain private and often go viral or even end up on porn sites,” Stromin explains. “Blocking your child’s handset won’t help you with this type of problem. For that, it’s important to build a relationship with your children in which these matters are discussed openly. Parents need to remind their children that once ‘out there’, a picture can never be retrieved or deleted. They will have to live with it for the rest of their lives. The means to block your children’s cell phones from accessing adult content is a good start, but it’s only the beginning of what parents need to do.”

WASPA’s website also contains a link to the Cellphone Safety website, which includes additional ways to block access to adult sites using third-party applications and to the Parents’ Corner blog where advice and war stories can be shared.