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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