Three Irishmen have come up with a smartphone app they claim will help safeguard Irish children from the dangers of sexting. Shelley Marsden spoke to one of the three Shane Diffily.
LAST year, brothers Shane and Ronan Diffily and their friend John Condron, all with backgrounds in the computer industry, decided to build a smartphone app – its aim, to protect Irish children from the perceived dangers of ‘sexting’ – the sending of sexually explicit messages between mobile phones
Shane, who hasn’t got kids himself but is uncle to “various nieces and nephews”, told the Irish World that it was his brother Ronan, whose current job takes him close to the frontline in terms of online safety that first came up with the idea.
“We’ve worked together on fun projects, travel websites, things like that, but together with our friend John, we decided this would be a very useful app to work on – about something that seems to be becoming a bigger and bigger issue”, he said.
After eight months of development, the techie trio came up with the easy-to-use SelfieCop, which works by emailing parents a copy of every photo or video taken on their child’s smartphone or tablet, including photos and videos captured by popular social networking apps like SnapChat, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
The app, which has recently gone live, is available at the cost of €2.99 for all Google Android smartphones & tablets including Samsung, HTC, Sony & Nexus, with an iPhone/iPad version of SelfieCop under development and due out this summer.
The thinking behind the app, aimed at children between the ages of 9 and 13, is to try and stem the flow of the problem of over-sharing potentially inappropriate material, rather than offer an immediate miracle solution, explained Shane.
It’s already garnered positive reactions though, with Andrew Jackson, National Anti-Bullying Coordinator at ISPCC describing it as “a useful new tool that can help parents safeguard their children.”
“We hope it can teach kids who are too young to be sexually curious but already have access to all kinds of technology to think before they send certain images”, said Shane, who is a specialist in the emerging discipline of Web Governance and author of The Website Manager’s Handbook.
“Parents can say look, we’re going to install this app on your phone which means that,every time you take a photo or a video, we can see what you’ve done.”
Their hope, continued Shane, is that when those same children get to the age when they are starting to be sexually curious, a more cautious approach to social media and exchanging information online will already be second nature.
“That’s why we don’t recommend the app be installed on the phones of kids from around 15 and above. You’re growing up; you quite rightly have expectations of privacy. But if those teens are already more wary and think twice about what they’re doing by the time they get to that age, it might help.”
But is there not a danger here that we are feeding into parents’ hysteria? Laughing, Shane says it’s something they discussed at length during the entire development cycle. Their first idea was to get access to the child’s phone and copy everything that was going on there, before they instinctively began paring it back, to what they felt was the right level of parental intrusion, respectful of the child’s own personhood as defined by law, and the child’s own ability to tolerate certain levels of intrusion.
“There’s definitely an issue where parental hysteria is concerned. Mums and dads going my god, this is the new great evil in the world and we need to shut it down now!” said Shane.
“We knew if we didn’t get that balance right and installed something too intrusive kids would be throwing their phones into the canal or refusing to use them at all. That or they’d go off and buy a second phone which parents have absolutely no access to.”
The balance they hope to have reached with the new app is that parents can see what photos/videos their offspring has taken, putting certain parameters on their behaviour, but parents can’t see anything of what they are receiving from friends in return.
The counterargument, of course, would be that there are already too many constraints on children’s interactions nowadays. Parents, afraid to send their children out on the streets to play as they might have done in their youth, make them stay at home and only allow them out for structured activities –swimming on Friday, ballet on Saturday, and so on and so forth.
One of the reasons why so many children are using social media to such a high degree is that it’s the only outlet left to them over which their parents don’t have complete control, and as a result they have developed what experts are calling ‘bedroom syndrome’, where they lock themselves away in their room with their PC or smart-phone, and communicate with friends that way.
Now that parents are cottoning on to this, children are turning to more and more ingenious and cloak-and-dagger methods to keep control over their private realm. That’s why SnapChat and other similar services are popular – they reduce the chance of parental interference.
“This is all very true”, said Sean, “but a lot of this kind of behaviour according to research usually happens in the mid to late teens, when young people are reaching puberty and becoming very much their own stand-alone people and exhibiting the usual teen symptoms, roaring arguments and all the rest!
“We’re not aiming at them; we’re aiming at the pre-pubescent child, who gets his first phone at 8 or 9 years old and is really still open to a huge amount of influence and is under the control of parents most of the time.
“This is something we hope will teach a kind of behaviour over time, it’s not instantly going to be an immediate solution. Three or four years down the road, the 9 year old who learned to stop and think before taking that particular picture, will be a teenager who thinks twice about what they’re putting out there.
Visit the website at www.selfiecop.com or download the app itself at play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.selfiecop.android.