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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.

Gordon Tsui Pak-long

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 mom
Luo Zhi-mei

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.

Chan Wai-ho, a 37-year-old mother of two, does not bother with filtering software and she never uses the parental control mode. This is because she does not believe these can really solve the problem.

“I need my kids to be able to control themselves instead of finding something to stop them,”she says.

Chan only allows her 10-year-old and 12-year-old sons to use the internet under her supervision. She sets a time limit of 15 minutes for each of their sessions of computer use, and these are only ever for learning purposes. She gives her sons traditional mobile phones with prepaid phone cards to make calls only. That way they do not have access to the internet and mobile games.

“They haven’t played computer games for four to five years,” Chan says.

Chan started her strict regimen when her boys were in Primary One and will maintain it until they enter secondary school. She believes children can have more freedom when they reach secondary school age, but supervision and explanations are necessary before that.

She gives an example of the kinds of “explanations” she makes when, for instance, her sons come across adverts with scantily clad young women.

“I try to explain to them that the girls in the adverts will catch cold because they are wearing so little clothing and they will soon go to see the doctor,” says Chan. “That’s why I need to stay with them and explain to them when they use computer.”

Chan says her years of hard work have paid off because she sometimes hears other children saying how they like to play with her sons because they are more gentle than other children. She believes their good manners are related to their lack of exposure to violent and indecent material online.

Clinical psychologist, Sarah Ip Miu-yin says playing games with bloody scenes involving death and killing can affect a child’s social development.

“For immature kids, playing violent games will hinder their emotional control and they could be inclined to solve problems using force,” says Ip. “Also, they would be apathetic to death and have less empathy.”

Sarah Ip Miu-yin

Ip explains violent games focus on players gaining sensational stimulation and receiving virtual rewards by killing. As preschool and primary school kids learn through rewards and punishment, they may perceive killing or fighting as acceptable when they get rewards in the virtual world.

She says such mobile applications may encourage children to downplay the consequences of their behaviour.

“I think kids don’t have a clear understanding of death,” Ip says. “They will confuse the real world with the virtual world.”

As for the pop-up adverts with graphic sexual content, Ip says they are aimed at adults with specific sexual tendencies and tastes. When children view them, it may normalise and rationalise these behaviours. Images that objectify women can influence how young girls perceive themselves as they grow up and how young people relate to those of the opposite gender.

Ip thinks parents should supervise their children as they do not have the ability to control themselves and they are likely to be more self-aware if they think they are under supervision. But they should also talk to their children and teach them how to differentiate and process information, explaining why something is good or bad.

“It is worse to ignore them,” says Ip. “Children would prefer you to tell them what they should and should not do.”

With the industry unlikely to introduce restrictions on children’s access to apps, the onus seems to be on parents to ensure children’s online safety. As for the government, it takes a passive approach to controlling indecent and obscene online content. In a written reply, the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA), said the government adopts a complaint-driven and co-regulatory approach, which means the OFNAA will only take action when they receive a complaint. If the content under complaint is deemed indecent, the OFNAA will ask the webmaster to add a warning notice or remove the content. In some cases, if the content under complaint is obscene, they will refer cases to the police for follow-up action.

While the protection of children is important, regulation or control of the internet is a complex and controversial issue. Ip Kin-yuen, the legislator representing the education sector says it is difficult to balance the need to protect children from potentially harmful material and upholding internet freedom and free speech.

Ip says it is hard to adopt a system to regulate the online world in the way that say, the film classification system works.

“That system forbids kids to go into a certain space, like a cinema. But the internet is not a space which makes it very hard to regulate,” Ip says.

Ip thinks the government should take more initiative to support schools, parents and students and provide more education. He warns that rushing to establish regulations without prudent evaluation could have a great impact on the flow of information and freedom of speech.

Edited by Julian Ng