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Family Rules for children’s time online

A new survey reveals fear, uncertainty and doubt about children’s online activity and how to control it ..

Children’s game time can be fixed in advance, but how long should children stay online – to hear PassW0rd’s podcast on the issue sponsored by F-Secure click here.

Pollsters commissioned by Finnish cyber-security company F-Secure asked UK parents about how much time their children spend online. Only a tiny fraction (2%) said they had no rules about time spent on games, smartphone apps and Playstation. More than one third (36%) were worried that the youngsters spend “too much” time online.

But what is “too much”?

Even the experts disagree.

Depression and delayed adolescence

American psychiatrist Jean Twenge of San Diego has researched generational differences in US teenagers and discovered that the smartphone generation (she calls it iGen) grows up later. That means dating, having sex, getting a part-time job and learning to drive all happen at a significantly later stage than in previous generations. And Twenge also identifies a stronger dependence on parents and an increase in depression, suicidal thoughts and actual suicides. Her book warns that American teens, especially girls, are becoming isolated and socially inept because of excessive use of smartphone apps such as Snapchat, Whatsapp and Instagram.

Addicted to social media or online games

But that’s in the USA. British schoolchildren aged 11 to 18 have been studied by scientists in Dr. Olatz López-Fernández’s team at the University of Barcelona.

F-Secure’s Paul Al-Soufi

They found that only 10% were “problem users”and regarded themselves as addicted to social media or gaming. Meanwhile Berlin psychiatrist Mazda Adli, who’s recently published a book about the effect of modern life on health, finds that it is not technology  that is to blame but the loss of traditions, spirituality and moral compass, together with the ability to shop online twenty four hours a day. Small wonder that parents are confused!

Future Intelligence interviewed some typical British mums as well as experts in our podcast about how families limit children’s time online.

What are the Family Rules?

F-Secure surveyed UK parents

FSecure  found more than half (56%) thought their children spent too much time online and more than one-fifth (21%) admitted their little ones were online when they should be asleep. The cyber security company used the results of the survey to inform the use of its new product, an option called “Family Rules” that comes with the new F-Secure SAFE software package.

It works by providing the technical ability for parents to switch off their children’s mobile devices and internet access is built in to the system. But F-Secure’s Paula Al Soufi  stresses that this is not a technological solution. Rather she regards the Family Rules as a platform for negotiating with children, so that they agree on their own various different limits, to allow time for family meals, homework, sports, music and other real-world activities, as well as having fun online.

“With my son it definitely helps that he knows when he is allowed to play games and that there is only one time. Otherwise he would be constantly asking for more…”

What works for the Al Soufis in Helsinki, Finland, might not be suitable for families with older, teenage children. Future Intelligence Gaming Editor Brad Davis points out :”It can take up to an hour to get to the next level, or the stage where you feel you have achieved something in the game.” 

Big Mother is watching you…

Futurologist Alexandra Montgomery Whittington is also sceptical about technological limits on behaviour. She coined the phrase “Big Mother” with its juxtaposition of Orwellian surveillance and the well-meaning – but oppressive – desire of a “nanny state” or typical mum to monitor and limit their children’s enjoyment, for their own good. In her research Whittington cites a ten year old who was, in the scientist’s opinion, addicted to her Fitbit wifi-enable wristband, which measured every step, counted the calories consumed and charted how many hours and minutes the child slept at night.

Shall we feel the need to escape to the Dark Web before long?

Adjunct Professor Alexandra Montgomery Whittington, University of Houston

Interviewed by Future Intelligence, Professor Whittington predicted:

By 2025 we might see people logging on to the Dark Web, just to regain some privacy

She points out that the constant monitoring might be benign, and for our own good – but it is still surveillance, and creates big pools of highly personal data that could be hacked, sold or held to ransom. It would be valuable to health insurance companies and law enforcement agencies. Future Intelligence Editor Peter Warren, himself a father of four, can see advantages in the F-Secure system for programming family rules into a solution that does not only operate in the home but also outside on mobile devices, saving young people from the risk of hacking by criminals or grooming by sexual predators when they are out of their parents’ sight.

“My children would be constantly trying to negotiate for more access or more time, and so we would get into a dialogue about what they want to look at online and why. That’s a good thing.”

Family Rules is available as part of several F-Secure products. This article is produced in association with F-Secure. Other solutions are available.