iPhone: not your kids' phone

Parents who thought they were starting to get on top of the battle to protect their children on the internet may have to think again with the launch of the latest high tech gadget, Apple’s celebrated iPhone. Most parents would be aware that the iPhone is a very smart phone and that it is popular with young people, but many will not be aware of its true capabilities and how it will revolutionise mobile internet access.

And this latest cyber-revolution will not stop with the iPhone itself; the device has heralded a sea change in mobile phone technology, with the world’s biggest companies vying with each other to produce even more advanced devices.

The key fact here is that, with an iPhone, anyone can access the internet wherever and whenever they want – even in the playground. As one commentator observed: “While the internet was tied to a desktop computer, or a relatively hefty, luggable laptop computer, parents were in a relatively strong position to exercise control over the technology. With the arrival of the iPhone, the technology horse has well and truly bolted.”

But, you may say, there have been mobile phones in the past that have been capable of accessing the internet on the run, why should the iPhone be any different?

The answer is that the iPhone ups the ante in three separate ways. First, it provides a fully-fledged web browser, not a scaled down version like its predecessors. Second, the device is much cheaper to buy than previous smart phones that were aimed primarily at business. And third, because of the way the phone is being marketed, it often comes with very large data allowances enabling users to access an unlimited number web pages.

Still not convinced? Let’s take a look at each of these three advances in a little more detail.

The iPhone’s web browser is Apple’s Safari, which functions in a very similar way to the version that runs both on Apple and Windows desktop computers. On most other smart phones browsers have been very limited in what they can display. Many pages and even entire sites, could not be displayed at all, while others could only be partially displayed. Even when a site, with images and video could be displayed, the images were often so small that it was hardly worth the effort.

By contrast, iPhone’s version of Safari can display most websites in full and if the viewer is not happy with the size of an image, all they need to do is to double tap on the column in which it is displayed, or place two fingers on the screen and move them apart, and the image can be magnified to fit the entire screen. And given the phone’s high-quality screen, even when images are enlarged they are still crystal clear.

It does not take too much imagination to see what a boon such devices will be to the pornography industry which has already established itself as one of the biggest online publishers. Earlier this year Time warned that the iPhone could lead to an explosion of mobile pornography that may get into the hands of children. In an article headed "The iPhone’s Next Frontier: Porn", the magazine warned: “Leading porn purveyors see the iPhone as a dream come true. Its relatively ample screen size, speedy Web access and ease of use are just part of it. The device’s miniaturized version of Apple’s Safari software simplifies mobile access and streamlines the process of tailoring dirty sites for optimal viewing on the go.”

Of course, most kids will not go looking for porn, but that does not mean they are secure from its unwelcome intrusion.

Even if earlier smart phones were able to display some pornographic web sites successfully, most of them were far too costly for school students to afford, even if they did have a part-time job at McDonalds. But the iPhone 3G can already be purchased for very little. As Steve Jobs boasted, the up-front price has come down to $199 and some carriers are even giving them out free on very affordable plans.

Anyone who doubts that iPhones will end up in the hands of teens should have checked out the queues on the day the device was launched. Some teens were there alone while others accompanied by their parents. And as newer models become available, second-hand iPhones will be able to be bought for a song.

Some parents may have been lulled into a false sense of security due to the fact that the iPhone has been promoted as coming with parental controls, but my own tests reveal those controls are appallingly limited. Anyone expecting that they would block inappropriate sites and materials, for instance, will be sorely disappointed. In fact, the controls cannot be used to block individual web pages at all. They simply control which of the iPhone’s programs the user can access and when they can access them. In other words, at present if you want to protect your son or daughter while they are online on an iPhone then you can only do it by blocking access to the internet altogether. This is of course not going to impress kids who have their heart set on a mobile phone that not only makes phone calls and plays their favourite music (just like an iPod) but can also access online services, many of which are both harmless and useful.

So the question is: what can parents do in the face of this new gadget that is likely to become increasingly popular over the next few years? Some commentators are already predicting that the iPhone and its clones may soon become the preferred mode of internet access among young people – a development that already appears to be taking place in Japan.

At this stage parents can only hope that a proper web filter is developed for the device, or that internet service providers can be forced to filter content a their end. This second option is already being pursued in some countries where the iPhone is on sale, notably in Australia.

But its success is by no means assured.

In the meantime, parents would be well advised to try to steer their children away from the iPhone and encourage them to stay away from those who use them in the playground.

David Vincent is a Sydney journalist.This article was first published in Perspective magazine.


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