Screening more than 65million texts since November, there are more than 50,000 children using the SafeToNet app – which works to monitor eight- to 16-year-olds’ behaviour online and warn parents of harmful usage. Looking for language that indicates aggression, abuse, sexual talk, suicide and self-harm, the app applies threat levels to each type of behaviour and categorises them before sending the information to parents (although they can’t see what the child has written.)
In researching this behaviour across their texts and social media apps like Instagram and WhatsApp, the service found that girls aged 10 used the most explicit and potentially harmful sexual language. ‘We weren’t expecting to see that,’ said Richard Pursey, the founder and chief executive of Safe To Net. ‘We thought it would more likely be boys than girls and in the 12 to 13 age group.’
And while it’s concerning that 10-year-old girls are the most prominent category of harmful and explicit sexual references, Pursey believes the Nando’s references in particular aren’t necessarily worrying.
‘We don’t think it is as sinister as it seems,’ he commented, noting that the highest incidences are within group chats with other girls. ‘We think it is a rite of passage and is related to that rather than actual sexual activity.’
More concerning is the fact that boys are more abusive and aggressive on their phones, with children at large fearing bullying on Sunday evenings in particular. It comes at a time when more than half of 10-year-olds have smartphones, with ownership doubling between the ages of nine and ten, according to Ofcom.
In December last year, it was reported that since 2016 more than 6,000 children under 14 had been investigated by police for sexting offences – 300 of which were of primary school age. And with the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russel in 2017 – who had viewed Instagram posts about self-harm and suicide – parents are increasingly concerned about how their children are interacting online.
With SafeToNet, they can get reports about the level of risk their children is engaging in online, with the app also helping educate children in real time by providing colour-coded messaging when they type risky or harmful text into their phone. The app can even stop children sending messages that are high risk, for example if they were about to tell someone ‘go kill yourself’.
Using artificial intelligence, the app is programmed to contextualise information and so can note the difference between the term ‘kill’ in a harmful way compared to saying someone ‘killed it’ in a positive sense. It also picks up on slang spellings and ‘leeting’ – which is when you replace a letter with a number, for example ‘h8’ instead of ‘hate’.
While the app has faced backlash that it encourages parents to spy on their children, they insist parents are not fed information about what their children are writing, just a risk score. It’s also only installed on a child’s phone with their knowledge as the app overlays a phone’s keyboard when they type and alerts the child to risky messages.
‘It’s all too easy for a child, in the heat of the moment when the “red mist” descends or in the excitement of what’s happening, to send a message that might be used against them or cause them harm,’ reads their website. ‘The SafeToNet Intelligent Keyboard is there to help and act as a real-time safeguarding assistant to help educate your child to become a better digital citizen.’
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