About the best child safe websites

I was asked to answer the question "What are the best child safe websites" over on Quibly. Answering it made me think a bit, so I decided to rework my answer for our blog. So, what are the best child safe websites?

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer in a useful way (sorry!). The nature of our business means we come into contact with lots of great content, but it’s often mixed in with content not suitable for younger children ("family safe" is not a logical Internet concept…) so we often can’t just say "go to these sites" to people who don’t have TwoTen in operation. The obvious example here is YouTube; lots of great content for toddlers, rather more content that’s only suitable for older children and of course a fair bit that’s only suitable for older teenagers or adults.

Sites that focus on serving younger children with entirely free to use content, like Kideos, tend to become derelict because the original maintainers lose interest. To be fair "free to use" for this age group means it costs the operators money as well as time to maintain the site as they can’t (shouldn’t…) be gathering data they can sell, nor are they likely to do well with ads.

There are active sites out there which actively provide content of various types, and these sites are a mix of fun and educational (sometimes on the same site!). But all of the active ones we could mention that have stood the test of time like Moshi Monsters or Poisson Rouge, have one feature in common other than their focus on younger children; they charge in some way. A charge is inevitable because there’s no other way to sustainably fund the maintenance and development of these sites, to ensure they remain safe environments as well as continue to work on new browsers, adapt to changes in technology, add new content and to generally improve month on month.

Every time you encounter a rich, entertaining and educational site for younger children, ask yourself how is it making money? If it’s good it’ll have to make money somewhere because the costs of maintaining a site like that is non-trivial, even if the operators personally have the skills and time – running a popular site with lots of content will cost upwards of USD1000/month just in hosting fees. Once you add in developers, esafety staff, systems administrators… That’s a lot of money and it has to come from somewhere.

Sites that provide some sort of service free to use tend to use 2 ways to fund them; either they advertise or they harvest data about their users that they then sell on in some way. Apart from pesky legal restrictions in some countries, most parents would be uncomfortable with the idea that their child is being "harvested", which makes that monetisation route tricky. Then the value of ads on sites used by younger children will be difficult to "prove" to potential advertisers, because most web ads these days pay per click on the assumption the click was intentional – which is hard to believe with toddler visitors; and/or likely to result in a sale, even harder to believe. And of course many parents don’t want their child targeted with more ads either!

So charging in some way for sites targeting children is basically inevitable. Charges for web sites/services are likely to become more common generally, as awareness of the maxim "if ain’t the paying customer, you’re the product" becomes higher turns people away from the purely free to use. It’s just that there are less opportunities for indirect revenue with younger children so the issue has become apparent earlier.

So, back to the original question (finally!). We’ve decided to start letting you know about sites we come across that are suitable for the children who TwoTen serve – so your child can enjoy them before we’re ready to make the home product available.

Net Neutrality and “think of the children”

A Google search gives this as a definition of net neutrality:

the principle that Internet service providers should enable access
to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without
favouring or blocking particular products or websites

Sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? Without that as a basis, ISPs
could (and would) provide preferential treatment to the web content consumers
request from those large companies who could pay for the privilege, and
effectively kill off start-up competitors by relegating them to an Internet slow
lane. This would make their respective offerings differ in the quality of the
user’s experience purely on a company’s ability to pay for preferential
treatment rather than through the quality of their content or technology. It’d
be like all roads having a fast lane added that you have to pay £10/mile
to use – great if you can afford it, not so great for everyone else.

So far so good. Recently the European Union made progress towards
enshrining net neutrality in regulation, which seemed like a great move.
And then came the cries of "think of the children" from the UK
government. What? How? Umm… To quote:

“Let me be clear that we will not agree to any proposals that restrict the
ability of parents to protect their children from inappropriate content
on line”

Well, let me be clear. Nor would I. Nor would any half sane person.
And that’s got absolutely nothing to do with the proposed regulation.

Net neutrality does not and cannot interfere in a parent making these
decisions; lack of net neutrality on the other hand will certainly
limit the development of new and exciting things on the Internet that
your child might benefit from; lack of net neutrality will inhibit
competition, driving up prices for everyone; net neutrality is good for
parents, good for your children, and good for wider society.

Have you spoken to Talking Angela?

If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, or even spend a fair amount of time chatting to other parents while waiting for the kids to come out of school at the end of the day, you’ll have probably heard all about Talking Angela.This app is able to come into your home, ask your children all kinds of inappropriate and personal questions and even watch them while they sleep. It’s even said to have been either hacked by a paedophile ring or made by one, I’m sure it doesn’t matter which, both are equally terrifying prospects. So how can we protect our children from the clutches of Talking Angela? First let us examine the ‘evidence’:

This rather scary status has been doing the rounds on Facebook of late: 

"I cant even in words say what I just found out.. I am SHOCKED and want to tell and let my friends and family be made aware so they can make sure their children are safe!!

Angelica stayed home from school today and thank GOD she did. Because she was on her ipod playing a game called talking angela, which is similar to talking tom, anyway as she is sitting next to me this interactive cat says to her hi angelica where is your brother? She says o hes right here next to me the cat says o cool, then the cat says so what do you do for fun? Ang says I dont know, (now im being quiet and listening because I think its weird this angela cat knows she has a brother and is talking to her like a person) then its voice changes and in some weird robotic voice it says angelica when u date what do u do on your dates? She looked at me got red in the face and said nothing, then it said stick out your touunge, ill stick mine out too, it said what are some things u can do with your tounge? I can find many things to do with my tounge it said it said lets intrract wour toungues. I that point I had heard enough I zaid ang shut it off now!

I was freaked out called the police departnrnt they came to the house saif they would have the internet investigations unit and pedofile investigations unit look into it, they called me an hour latet and said something is behind that cat!!! They dont know if it is local or over seas. While the police officer was there and ang was talking to him she told the police officer saturday night her cousin and her were on the app w angela and it asked the girls their names what her brothers name was what school they BOTH went to, and it took a picture of angelica!!! This is under serious investigation right now! When I googled talking angela I cant even begin to tell you what creepy stuff came up! Google it for yourselves please!! But some things are the cat asking girls for their phone numbers! And if theyve had their firat kiss!!!

Take this app off your phone please! Theres a big chance thid cpuld be a door for pedofiles.the police said they have seen thing *like* this but never actually through a childs app but that they are not putting it past them! The girls told angela the cat on saturday their names and she had a brother and then on monday morning when angelica turned the app back on, It remebered her name and that she had a brother!!! These things ARENT supposed to ask you questions!!! and especially not questions about dating toungues or kissing!! I am disgusted! I dont feel safe at all right now! Knowing that there was some creep talking to my daughter and my neice through a talking app!!! Please if you have this app or any like it the police are saying take it off of your phone!!! Copy and share and send out PLEASE! This word needs to spread! I pray the ocean county investigators can crack this thing open!!!!!So please if your KIDS use this app please shut it down. Because SOME KIDS told them the name of the school they went to and is now on red alert at the school, and please PASS this on to ALL your friends. — feeling annoyed in Scotland."

And this image with some rather damning accusations about Talking Angela’s abilities has been widely shared too:

Let’s tackle the first piece of evidence, the Facebook status. Now this one is written by someone who is said to be ‘feeling annoyed in Scotland’ about something that happened to their child, yet they reported the matter to the ‘Ocean County investigators’, so the part of me that worked for the police in previous years would dismiss it as a piece of evidence immediately, seeing that the person writing the post doesn’t know if they live in Scotland or America, hardly a reliable witness if they can’t get that right. 

The status does however raise concerns about the way in which the child referenced has been allowed to use the Internet. If she and her cousin are apparently giving out personal information online, should they even be online without additional safeguards in the first place? Where else have they given out this information and who to? The message implied in this status is that the real problem is the children in question have not received the appropriate guidance in how to be safe on Internet and the parent needs to take a look at how that is discussed and implemented at home. 

The second piece of evidence really hammers the point home, seeing that it’s an image with some pretty big accusations on it. Having spent the last hour or so posing as a seven year old and chatting to Talking Angela myself, as well as having a 12 year old daughter who has been using the App on her iPod for the last few months, I’ll have a go at answering some of the questions that arise from this image.

Does it ask your name and where you live?  

I was asked my name and then was asked if I’d like to stroke her. She is a cat after all so this is hardly surprising. She does a little wiggle (which some people have deemed highly inappropriate, but it’s a cartoon cat sitting at a table in a cafe, it’s hardly an over 18 film) and told me I was a cutie. I said "So are you", to which she replied "That’s a personal question. Tell me about you. I’m 18. Are you an adult too?", to which I answered that I was 7. There was no acknowledgement of my age, no questions about where I went to school, where I lived or anything else of that nature.

Does it watch you?

There has been speculation that this app can hijack your camera or watch you through Talking Angela’s eyes. If that is true then some poor paedophile had a nasty shock when he fancied a look at a 7 year old girl and instead got an exhausted 32 year old mother of two sitting there in her pj’s at 7.30am on a Saturday morning. I doubt very much he’d have bothered trying to look at the 7 year old me again! But does this carry any weight at all, could this cat have weird eyes in which you can apparently see your room or the image of a man staring out at you? Firstly computer screens are made up of pixels, there is no way that the eyes of this cat can look at you in any way. If you see your room in its eyes or the silhouette of a person staring back at you – that is called a reflection, you might want to google that rather than scare yourself with more stories about the magical powers of this talking cat.

It says inappropriate things to your child.

I asked Talking Angela numerous inappropriate questions trying to get something remotely offensive out of it. Yes it talks to you about dating Talking Tom and asks if you’ve ever had a crush on someone at school, it even says kissing Talking Tom makes her tingle all over, but try to pry or ask about sex and it won’t go any further, instead changing the subject and asking about books or films. Is talking to a five year old about tingling all over when you’re kissed by your animated ‘boyfriend’ Talking Tom inappropriate? Yes. So this app can be age-inappropriate, not suitable for younger children – but then there is a way to stop all conversations happening with Talking Angela by using the child option, which mean she remains just like her talking boyfriend Tom and just repeats what you say in a funny voice. 

It/He will come to your house?

Well no one has knocked on my door, but then it does state it will come to your house when your parents are out so maybe it waits for parents to leave their children at home unsupervised. If we’re talking about 5 year olds then I’d hope it would be the police and social services knocking on the door rather than anyone else.

You can’t delete the app.

I did. I’ve tried it on facebook, my phone and the iPod and it disappears in an instant, just like any other app would if you deleted it.

It’s too intelligent to be just an app

Talking Angela is much like Siri on Apple products. For those that aren’t familiar, it’s a talking app that you can quite literally have a conversation with. My 12 year old loves it, she even quite likes insulting it just to listen to the exasperated responses and the refusal to discuss the matter further. It knows what you are saying, it can answer questions, provide you with the details of your local restaurant, tell you who your next meeting is with and put dates in your diary just by you asking it to. It does work on a script however, much like Talking Angela. It recognises certain words and responds accordingly. Technology these days is advancing at an astounding rate and Talking Angela is just an app taking advantage of that technology, not your child. 

Probably the main problem with this app is the parents of the children who use it. That’s right. You and me. If we don’t know what our children are doing online, or provide suitable safeguards to protect them from apps and websites that aren’t age appropriate, then we really need to rethink the way in which we allow our children to use the Internet.  If you don’t think Talking Angela is appropriate for the age of your child because it discusses things like dating and crushes you’d prefer them not to know about until later on, don’t allow them to download the app, and put in place something that controls what they can download. Don’t blame the app, the raw Internet is the world, not a children’s playground.

Having worked with the kind of people accused of making or hacking into this app while working for the police, I agree wholeheartedly that the Internet can be a scary place. However the hype around Talking Angela is just that. If you could bottle the way in which the hysteria about it has gone viral and sell it on to companies wanting to get their product in the public eye, you would be a billionaire by morning. So take a look at the app for yourself and draw your own conclusions, rather than jumping on the bandwagon. Young children are coming home from school telling parents they have to delete the app because bad men can look at them if they keep it on their phone. Is scaring our children unnecessarily really what we want to achieve?

On the cyber-bullying conversation

This post originally came about from a Q&A with Holly Seddon of Quibly as part of their preparation of a free e-book on cyberbullying. We thought the result was pretty good, so asked if we could reproduce it in full here.

Q. How can you talk to your children about the topic of cyber-bullying?

Firstly, its important not to think of cyber-bullying as
fundamentally different to any other kind of bullying; although the
cyber element changes where/when the bullying can occur, it’s still
fundamentally the same. It remains worth repeating the mantra of "sticks
and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me" on the basis
that it’s true (if you believe it). This can get a child (and adult!)
through any verbal encounter more or less unscathed, which in its own right will
reduce instances of bullying and possibly prevent it getting past its
precursor of "picking on me".

If you think you need to talk to your child about bullying (whether
because you think they are being bullied or even being a bully) then you
should try and do so in a non-leading, non-judgemental manner, as this
can help prevent an escalation. But there’s no easy way to just start,
if you don’t already have that chatty, trusting sort of relationship
with your child – so start talking sooner rather than later.

It’s worth noting that recent FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute)
research found cyber-bullying on the decrease, for the simple reason
that children have learnt that tracing even "anonymous" online
identities is fairly easy, far harder than tracing the same messages
passed on printed notes.

Q. How can you create an environment where the child will turn to the parent when in trouble?

Building and preserving trust and engaging in regular
communication is the best way to ensure you are an early port of call
for a child seeking help and advice. One great way to encourage the
latter is regular and frequent sit-down meals together (not including a
TV!). This doesn’t have to be every day, but often enough a week for the
talking habit to develop. Building and preserving trust is more
difficult. All you can really do is never abuse their trust, and forgive
them abusing yours. Remember there’s a reason they are legally defined
as children.

Q. How significant is the importance of where the computer is located in the house-hold?

In terms of a way of preventing your child from being
cyber-bullied, computer (browsing device) location is not really a
factor as the bully has no idea where a target is when browsing.
Ensuring a child can only access the Internet from a shared space in
your house may well prevent them from joining in though! Also see
comments on trust below.

Q. To what extent should parents automatically trust their kids?



They are kids. Most countries set the age of criminal responsibility
around the tweens, and only a few consider under-18s sorted enough to
vote, buy alcohol, buy cigarettes, purchase access to adult content,
etc.. There’s a reason for these age bars, namely that growing up is a
real thing, based on physiological development. A child’s brain is still
growing until they are around six-eight years old, and still going through
significant changes for 10+ years after that, albeit at a decreasing
rate. And then there’s that raging torrent of teenage hormones, which do
weird things to rational judgement.

So trust, yes. But remain aware, engaged without being intrusive, and
look at ways you can develop your child’s awareness and perception of
your relationship as a mutually trustworthy one.

Continue reading “On the cyber-bullying conversation”

Making it better

The Internet is well charted territory for many of us these days. We use it for everything, from reading articles about family life, cooking, children, and politics to paying the bills and ordering the weekly food shop, to sharing with friends. It’s a familiar place. Yet for our younger children it can be unfamiliar, even scary. Continue reading “Making it better”