By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: September 12, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Wireless cities may be the new Wild West for parents who want to control their kids' Internet access.
An increasingly wide range of mobile devices are giving the kids who use them entry points to wireless broadband outside of the home and parental control. Portable game players like Sony's PSP (PlayStation portable system) and Nintendo DS are just a couple of the popular mobile gaming devices that also let kids log onto the Net or connect to a peer-to-peer chat network. And Microsoft's upcoming Zune portable media player will likely let kids join social networks on the fly via built-in Wi-Fi.
Couple those gadgets with free wireless broadband in parks, cafes and even entire cities and all bets are off when it comes to parents maintaining control of their kids online, consumer advocates worry.
"When you give kids a wireless device in a city with Wi-Fi, it's just another way they can be interactive when you're not looking," said Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit organization that provides information on Internet safety. "They're likely already doing it at their friends' house or from their cell phones, but this just makes it bigger. It gives more kids access to it."
And it's easy for kids to use such game players to find strangers. Take Phil Belanger's 10-year-old son, who while flying from Hawaii to the mainland United States, found another boy on the flight with a Nintendo DS. The device could sniff out the other device with built-in Wi-Fi and start a peer-to-peer chat, so the two boys could text message and play the game at the same time. Belanger said it helped keep his son entertained on the flight.
"It was cool, we were separated from him and he was a little nervous, so he had someone to chat with he just found," Belanger said. But he added, the "same restrictions and common sense apply, you just have to have that talk with them."
Here's the problem: Unlike the typical PC, which most parents are familiar with, few parents know as much about their kids' gaming devices. And in some cases, those kids can get the same sort of Internet access on their gaming devices as they could on a PC.
"As unaware as parents are of what's happening on kid's computers, they're far less aware of what's happening on their mobile devices, even the iPods," said Art Wolinsky, technology director at WiredSafety.org.
Getting to know the devices would be a good start. Though Sony's PSP is fairly open to what is accessed over the Internet, for example, it does have controls for viewing media files such as games--if parents only take the time to learn about it.
What controls are in place now?
When it comes to the home computer, parents have a handful of options to limit or monitor kids' activities, regardless of whether the access point is a cable-modem or Wi-Fi. For example, Internet service providers such as EarthLink, MSN and Yahoo offer parental controls to regulate Web usage, and parents can buy software like Net Nanny to block pornography or set time limits on Web surfing. Home wireless routers even let parents control sites their kids visit from a centralized Web page.
Wi-Fi changes the equation, however. Sure, enterprising teens can find ways to subvert parental controls and software on the PC if they so wish. But with Wi-Fi now in many neighborhoods, kids can hop onto a neighbors' unsecured router fairly easily and circumvent controls on home wireless router or via portable devices like Sony's PSP.
"In theory, an enterprising child could just as easily use the PSP to log online under the covers of his bed as he could in the park," said Ron Sege, president and CEO of Tropos, a provider of Wi-Fi networking equipment.
"It's the portability, as opposed to the connection method, that's probably posing a bigger problem in terms of parental management," said Sege, who's the father of four kids.
Many public Wi-Fi networks, including the one in Mountain View, Calif., are configured so users must register first before getting online. With this requirement, kids on a Sony PSP wouldn't easily be able to get online without special software. But in a free zone without registration requirements, kids using WiFi-enabled devices might have an easier time.
Also, more and more commercial outfits are using free Wi-Fi as an enticement to kids. McDonald's, for example, has a deal with Nintendo to support the DS device from Wi-Fi hotspots in its restaurants. That way, kids can find other DS players while eating their Big Mac and fries. Imagine, advocates say, cyberbullying at the local burger joint.
"Right now it's not a big issue, but it could become a bigger issue if the game devices and other things like phones are developed without any regard to this issue or restriction," said Belanger, managing director of Novarum, a Wi-Fi consulting firm.
Keerti Melkote, founder of Aruba Networks, a mobile security company, said controls on wireless networks are tricky because physical boundaries don't exist. Any hacker in a parking lot can use a wireless network from an adjacent building if it's not secure. "Every access point is a potential hole," he said.
Aruba introduced Wi-Fi-blocking devices in the last two years for the education and corporate market. But, Melkote said, no one is selling software that lets parents govern their kids activity on mobile devices. "It needs to be something similar where you have a network controlled by a carrier or service provider, but the access control rights are governed by the parents," through a simple Web page, he said.
Net Nanny, for example, has no plans to sell software for the mobile market, said spokeswoman Carm Lyman.
But there are notable exceptions. Disney, for example, introduced a new cell phone this summer that essentially keeps its users in a "walled garden." Parents can track their kids' location via GPS, and set limits on their usage.
WiredSafety.org plans to launch a new advertising campaign in November. The ads will encourage parents to examine what their kids' devices can do before buying them. The ads will ask whether the portable device offers content, communication software or asks your kids to spend money on downloads.
At least one Wi-Fi enabled device, however, could be used to parents' advantage.
European device maker Nabaztag makes a smart object called the Wi-Fi Bunny that lets people send messages or alerts to the owner of the bunny, which is literally shaped like a rabbit with ears that move. Melkote uses the device to send verbal instructions to his children while they're at home. Logging onto a Web page he can send a voicemail saying, "Do your homework," and the wireless bunny will transmit the message.
"Once you have Wi-Fi and a wireless device, the filter you have to beef up is the one between their ears because you won't be able to watch them," said Aftab.
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit down with children when they're online, and make sure they visit only Web sites that are parent-approved. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends because to them, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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