Parents concerned about online safety as children spend more time on the internet and playing with electronic gadgets
By Gloria Lee & Howard Yang
Last October, a Hong Kong primary school banned an online game in which players need to control a character who falls off a building and has to avoid being slashed, smashed, sawn to bits and impaled by various obstacles on his way down. Castle Peak Catholic Primary School in Tuen Mun issued a notice to parents urging them to prohibit their children from playing games like “Falling Fred” and “Mr Jump” at home, due to fears they could encourage pupils to commit suicide.
Tse Pui-chi, the deputy principal of the school says they issued the notice after receiving complaints from parents who were worried some mobile games may promote distorted values to their children. Tse says the school has already taken measures to guide students on how to use the internet correctly through talks and lessons, and by installing a firewall on each computer on campus. But ensuring children’s online safety outside of school is another matter and is a job that requires parents to take control.
The description of “Falling Fred” in the Apple App Store and Google’s Play Store carries a warning saying that the game features zombie violence and is not suitable for children under 12. Despite this warning, there is no way to stop children from downloading such games to their mobile phones and devices. Today, as more and more parents allow their children to play with electronic gadgets in order to entertain them or keep them quiet, this can be a problem.
A survey on the use of the internet and electronic screen products by more than 5,400 preschoolers, and primary and secondary school students conducted by the Department of Health in 2013, revealed they are very popular among preschool children. The youngest age at which children started using tablets and computers is one month and around 19 per cent of preschoolers played video games for an average of 27 minutes each day.
The survey also shows that children are spending more and more time on the internet, with 20 per cent of primary and secondary school students spending more than three hours a day online. More than half of primary school students and over 90 per cent of secondary school students have smartphones. All this increases the chance that they may play games with violent features, visit inappropriate websites, and see indecent and obscene visuals online. For instance, pornographic or violent videos may pop up unexpectedly while children are browsing, watching videos or playing games online.
Primary Six student Gordon Tsui Pak-long loves playing mobile games but not violent ones. However, he sometimes comes across them anyway when he is playing on his phone.
“When I finish playing a game and close the window, some adverts and short clips will pop up,” he says.
He adds these clips and ads sometimes contain pornographic images. Gordon says he always closes these windows as they disgust him and hinder him from playing games.
“I don’t think I want to see those adverts,” says Gordon. “If something suddenly pops up, I will just delete it at once. Especially when I am playing a football game because I don’t want to lose the match.”
Gordon’s mother, Luo Zhi-mei is aware of the importance of online safety, so she prohibits her son from playing violent games involving zombies and bloody death scenes. Although she has succeeded in stopping Gordon from playing such online games, she has had other problems.
A few years ago, Luo found Gordon had been added by his classmates to a Facebook group where pornographic images were uploaded.
“I secretly logged into his account when I sensed something wasn’t going well and I at once helped him leave the group,” she says.
After the incident, Luo felt she had to tell Gordon why she logged into his Facebook account.
“I explained to him that I have to know who his friends are and what he does on Facebook,” says Luo.
However, she says she finds it difficult to spend lots of time scrutinising her son’s online footprint.
“I can’t tell whether my son watches bad materials online or not,” says Luo. “If I’m free, I will help him hide all the bad materials. But I can’t really do much if or when I’m not free.”
Luo suggests that apart from schools and parents, online platforms could also make some changes to make it harder for children to access inappropriate material. One way would be introduce a compulsory payment system.
Francis Fong Po-kiu, president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation and founder of e-Learning Consortium, believes that, technically, the industry could set up a compulsory payment system to restrict children’s access to the mobile applications, but he doubts companies would be willing to do so.
“Most of the mobile applications are free,” says Fong. “If you need people to pay for every application, who would be willing to download them?”
Fong says he thinks the most effective way for parents to protect children’s online safety is to activate the parental control mode built into electronic screen products.
However, he acknowledges parental control systems are not flawless, they cannot filter everything but are better than nothing.
“I once searched ‘brownie’ on the internet, but the results came up with a clip full of foul language,” Fong recalls. He points out that although parents can find a lot of different filtering software for kids, the internet has no boundaries which makes it difficult to establish more controls.