Mobile Phone Safety
Amethyst's Victoria Prewer looks at the advantages – and disadvantages – of mobile phone technology and why our children are not necessarily safer owning one
A colleague’s daughter took part in a charity bike ride recently, and thanks to the simple installation of an app, he was able to continually track her progress on his mobile phone.
In the office, we all commented on what a good idea it was and how nice it must be to know her precise location. However, we all agreed he should probably stop tracking her once the bike ride had finished. Although she had invited him to follow her, his daughter quickly realised she didn’t particularly want her dad knowing the exact time she had got into work or that she had stopped off somewhere to do some shopping. Needless to say she soon deleted the app.
There is no doubt that such advancements in technology can be extremely advantageous – if used correctly of course. One such app – Find My Friends - allows users to locate friends and family using an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Once the app is installed, users can invite friends to share locations. If at any time they don’t want to be followed, they can hide or remove their location immediately.
Such apps obviously have their benefits – they can help alert users when a child is on the way home from school or that a friend has arrived home safely after a night out - the sort of things most of us like assurance about.
But what happens when a simple tracking device becomes abused? When does it become too much information on where we are and what we are doing?
During the last decade, mobile phones have become more and more advanced (making calls is just a small part of what they are designed for), with an incredible array of functions created and added at breakneck speed.
Whether you sign up to a location app or not, our phones have become a means of tracking our whereabouts. This has enormous advantages, and they have become a crucial tool for police in the hunt for wanted or missing people. The signal transmitted from a mobile phone, even when not in use, can help them piece together the last known movements of its owner.
When a mobile phone is turned on, its signal is received by two, three or more nearby wireless towers. Any phone that is turned on maintains this connection. Traditionally, police use the principles of triangulation to track down a phone, and hopefully, its owner. If the phone communicates with three or more antenna towers, triangulation software can use the phone’s signal strength from each tower to estimate its geographic position.
But as they become increasingly sophisticated, phones are now being manufactured with GPS technology – almost all smartphones now have this function. GPS location works much like triangulation, except it relies on very precise signals from 12 or more satellites in low-Earth orbit. With many more reference points, the phone can identify its own location to within a few feet. The phone then uses a software application that runs in the background (not visible to the user), to report its location back to the wireless service provider. Because the phone reports its location based on GPS positioning, wireless carriers can relay a precise location for the phone to the police and other emergency response teams.
In essence, if you use a mobile phone it can be tracked, even if it’s only switched on for a short period. Today, the vast majority of adults in the UK have some sort of mobile phone – it’s even considered unusual not to own one.
But is the ability to trace someone’s whereabouts always a good thing? Many children also own mobile phones these days, as their parents understandably want to keep track of where they are and what they are doing, whether it’s walking to and from school, popping to the corner shop, or meeting up with friends in the park. As I have already discussed, there are plenty of location apps available which can help pinpoint their exact location, if required.
I agree that when I child is old enough to venture out by themselves, a mobile phone can be extremely useful – a helpline for them and a means of reassurance for their parents if they are running late or suddenly need a lift as they’ve missed the bus back home.
As a child, I never had a mobile phone (for the main reason that they didn’t exist!) and like other kids of my generation we coped without them. Want to meet friends at the park? Be back through the door at the required time, or Dad will come looking for you (major embarrassment). Want to go into town and see a film? Make sure you’re back at the bus stop in plenty of time so you don’t miss the right one to get you home.
I had a small stash of 10p pieces for emergency calls home from the phone box, but basically I had to be self-reliant and a good time-keeper. Arguably, I had far more independence than some kids have today, as my parents had to let go and trust me. If they wanted to know where I was or why I was running late they couldn’t call or text me to find out. They had to wait for me to be home when I said I’d be, and (99% of the time) I was.
This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the advantages of now having a mobile phone – like most people I can’t imagine life without mine (how did I ever arrange a social life without one?) but I certainly don’t want to carry a hand-held tracking device, which is what the mobile phone seems to be rapidly becoming. Call me old-fashioned, but I just want a phone that I can use to make calls, send texts to my friends and take the occasional photograph.
As my children (nine and seven) become older I will need to consider when I think it’s appropriate for them to have their own phones. In my nine year old son’s case, some of his friends already do. As I’ve said, mobile phones play a very useful role in our day-to-day lives but I don’t want my children to totally rely on them. What I want is to encourage their independence. I want them to be able to think for themselves in case (shock, horror) they forget or lose their phone and can’t immediately contact me for help. I also think that they have a right, as they get older, to be able to move around freely without me being able to check up on them all the time, or worst still, pinpoint their precise location.
Mobile phones can help keep our children stay safe, but we have to consider the facts. Statistically, there is no more danger of being abducted by a stranger than there was 10 or even 20 years ago. As we all know, youngsters are probably in more danger from strangers through using computers in the safety of their own homes, than they are out playing in the park.
The fact is, today’s mobile phones are as powerful and connected as PCs or laptops. All the risks associated with your desktop computer at home are the same with a phone. Arguably, there is an even greater risk from phones, as we can’t always monitor when our children are using them.
Useful tips for children about safe mobile phone use – such only giving out their mobile number to friends and people they trust, using PIN codes to lock their phones and keeping phones hidden from sight, can be found at https://www.childline.org.uk/Explore/OnlineSafety/Pages/MobileSafety.aspx
Take the same precautions with a mobile phone as you would with your home computer in regard to messaging and online safety:
Take time to make sure all the mobile devices in your house have the latest protections; it may require synching your device with a computer
Protect Your Personal Information. Lost or stolen devices can be used to gather information about you and potentially other people. Protect your phone like you would your computer
Secure your phone: Use a strong passcode to lock your phone
When in doubt, don't respond: fraudulent texting, calling and voicemails are on the rise. Just like email, requests for personal information or for immediate action are almost always a scam
Know how to block others: Using caller ID, you can block all incoming calls or block individual names and numbers.
Further tips on keeping your mobile phone safe can be found at https://www.staysafeonline.org/stay-safe-online/mobile-and-on-the-go/mobile-devices
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