InfoLab release new app to encourage child protection

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A new application has been developed for mobile devices in a bid to help child protection when using social networking sites.
The project has been completed by Isis Forensics, a Lancaster University spin out company based in InfoLab21, with the support of the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA) and InfoLab21’s Knowledge Business Centre.

These groups launched a £54,000 Research and Development project to develop next generation child protection technologies that will run on mobile phones. The project was also partly funded by the NWDA with a £34,528 Grant towards research and development.

In recent years, social networking sites have grown in popularity however they can be deemed double edged swords. While there is the freedom to access online communities, there is the fact that vulnerable users such as children are exposed to more threats. With mobile phone technology getting better and communications consisting of SMS, instant messaging and emailing it is no longer a case that parents are easily able to supervise their children.

James Walkerdine of Isis Forensics said: “We worked with parents in developing this application. We found one of the problems with other forms of child protection is that the child may feel that their parents are intruding on them however this technology allows the child to use it on their own to give them an idea of who they may be talking to online.”

What the app does is compare messages to a set of language profiles of different age groups. Certain characteristics the program would pick up on could be the type of vocabulary used, the length of replies and the use of abbreviations such as ‘FYI’ or ‘LOL’. Child Defense would then indicate to the child an age of who they are talking with. In the studies performed by Isis Forensics using real children and adults posing as a child, they found that Child Defense was able to give reasonably accurate age profiles in all situations. Isis Forensics intends to continue refinement of the app, and is seeking to achieve an overall accuracy of at least 90%.

Nevertheless the application has received some criticism from other bodies that are saying that it could lead children into believing that they are safe. According to the BBC, Chris Cloke, head of child protection said: “It can lull us into thinking that the child is safe and therefore we can move onto something else. I would certainly say that measures of this sort can be helpful but they need to be seen as one of the wider armoury we have for tackling child sexual abuse.”

James Walkerdine said: “Nothing can take the place of education and parental supervision when it comes to keeping children safe online. But with more and more young people accessing the web on mobile devices away from home or in the privacy of their rooms we think it is important to give children as many tools as possible to protect them from harm.”

ChildLine statistics in 2009-10 show that 1,054 children called over internet issues. The biggest concern was bullying at 39%. 10% called over problems with friends and 10% reported sexual abuse. Most of the time children don’t like to divulge in these situations which is where Child Defence aims to give them a good chance to know who they are chatting with online.

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