In 2017 there were more than 3.8 million students enrolled in Australian schools, many of whom are accessing the internet on an ongoing basis at home, in the classroom, and in the playground.
With tablets and other devices now being mandated for kids as young as prep graders, that’s millions of students who are potentially being exposed to the worst content, cyberbullying and other antisocial behaviour that the internet has to offer.
The challenge of keeping kids safe online is enormous. And with no single provider or technology having emerged as the dominant solution, that presents a massive opportunity for any technology company that can step into the breach.
According to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman-Grant, 88 percent of teens aged 14 to 17 are going online each month. And they are using multiple devices to do so, with 30 percent using up to three devices. Young people are also engaging on social media at an increasing rate, with 2016 research showing 34 percent of kids online aged 8 to 13 were social media users, rising to 82 percent when aged 14 to 17.
Inman-Grant says this behaviour is not without its risks. “At the eSafety Office, we look at the range of online risks to children according to the three Cs: access to inappropriate or illegal content, contact and conduct,” Inman-Grant says. “The range of issues we deal with includes: cyberbullying, which we know one in five Australian children are affected by; online child sexual exploitation, including grooming and sextortion; and image‑based abuse.”
Inman-Grant says the eSafety Office takes a holistic approach to helping keep children safer online, consisting of prevention, education and awareness, early intervention, and encouraging active parental engagement. And technology has an important role to play.
The question of how to keep kids safe online is as old as the web itself, with one of the earliest solutions, the content blocking tool Net Nanny, released way back in 1995. But neither it nor a host of other commercial and free tools has proven to be the ultimate solution.
Solving the content challenge
That has left a massive opportunity for local technology makers such as Family Zone Cyber Safety. Chief executive Tim Levy says the challenge now is that kids are accessing content on multiple devices and multiple networks, making blocking and filtering difficult to implement consistently.
“In my home I have 30 connected devices,” Levy says. “You can’t download software on to a smart TV or a game controller, but my kid can walk down the stairs at 2am and watch YouTube on my TV.”
Family Zone’s solution works on the basis of filtering within the network itself via a customised $89 wi-fi access device, coupled with software in the devices. Levy says the model can also be scaled up to an entire mobile network, with the company having forged relationships with the Philippines carriers PLTD and Smart, and now attracting attention throughout Asia.
“We thought maybe here was an opportunity to get carriers involved in what we call the ecosystem of cyber safety,” Levy says. “If you can have technology that interoperates in all of those places, then maybe we can solve the problem, and all of my experience in telco told me that interoperability was the key to mass-market take-up.”
Levy says Family Zone is now looking to build out a partner model.
“Because what we are selling is unusual, it is hard to have channel partners selling something that foreign,” Levy says. “You need market momentum before channel partners can get their head around it.”
Education technology specialists CyberHound has long played in the market for managing online risks in schools, and in 2017 was approached by Circle Media, the company behind the Circle with Disney home control device, to become its distributor in Australia.
Circle with Disney is an app-controlled box that plugs into the home router, which interacts with software installed on Android or iOS devices to monitor usage and set limits and rewards, while also providing access to Disney content.
“It is not just about being the police on the internet for a family, but also about rewards for doing the right thing,” says CyberHound’s head of communications, Steven Henderson.
CyberHound is now selling Circle via its CyberSafeHouse website for $99, and its effectiveness is reflected in some of the comments that students have on Google Reviews.
“Some students have given us bad reviews because they haven’t been able to access certain programs or games that their school has decided they shouldn’t be using that device or their school time so for,” Henderson says.
“There are so many stories of cyberbullying and other things that have gone terribly wrong on the internet for kids, so as long as those continue to be issues, and as long as kids have devices, there is going to be a market for a product like Circle.”
Using metadata to identify behaviours
Also diving into the market is Perth-based Wrangle Technologies. Chief executive Sean Smith says his company got into the child protection market after regulatory changes limited the commercial potential of its original VPN offering. The company found itself with a metadata reporting tool that was well suited to monitoring the sites and content children were interacting with online.
Working with the Perth-based research centre Telethon Kids Institute, Wrangle has built a system to identify children’s online behaviours, such as the sites they are visiting and content they are looking at, through the metadata running through the network. Wrangle has used this to construct a matrix of threats.
“By stitching it all together we can start to make some assumptions,” Smith says. “We have a whole range of behaviours that may identify grooming behaviour, and we can see evidence of cyberbullying. So if we see something, we throw up an alert in as close to real time as possible.”
Smith questions the effectiveness of blocking, especially as it makes it difficult for a child to come to their parents should they circumvent controls and then witness disturbing material.
“The single most important aspect of keeping children safe on the internet is maintaining a very strong and trusted relationship between kids and parents, and having the capability to go to parents when things go a bit pear-shaped,” Smith says.
Wrangle has also built up a set of educational assets for parents, so they can speak to children appropriately when an alert is issued.
“The whole point is for parents to work together with their kids, to teach kids to be more resilient,” Smith says. “So we curate and prepare the right educational material, so that we give parents the best tools to work with their children on these challenges.”
Wrangle launched its solution in late November 2017, and is now in the early stages of commercialisation. The next step will be to grow scale through major commercial partnerships.
“We are out talking to people in telecommunications and medical insurance and schools to land our first major distribution partnerships,” Smith says. “And once we know that we can scale it, we’ll go overseas.”
Combining tech and engagement
As to whether any of these companies make a significant dent in the challenge of protecting children online, only time will tell.
Inman-Grant says many of these companies are actively engaged with the eSafety Office, as it continues its multi-pronged approach to keeping kids safe online. But she cautions that technology alone is not the solution, and encourages all parents to turn to the eSafety Office’s website for resources and reporting tools.
“The eSafety Office is continuing to work with a range of technology players to continue investing and innovating in safety protections for all users,” Inman-Grant says. “Clearly there are some great tools on the market that can help parents and educators better safeguard their children, to enable safe and balanced use of technology.
“But this must be coupled with active engagement in children’s online lives. Ultimately the malfeasance we see online are societal and behaviour issues playing out in the technological sphere, so a combination of the two — adult involvement and technology — are critical joint interventions.”