Most adults know bullies are an unpleasant fact of life. But no parent would wish their children to fall prey to the attention of bullies or any of the other dangers that are the stuff of waking nightmares in the 21st century.
As technology marches on, advancements like smartphones and social media are only providing bullies with additional outlets to vent their personal demons on others.
In addition, children from a younger age are demanding the latest digital devices like smartphones and games consoles. Soon, if not already in some cases, tablet computers will replace school books.
Thanks to a new technology developed by a Dublin-based start-up called MobileMinder, smartphone technology can actually be harnessed to protect and defend children from bullies and other dangers.
The new MobileMinder service, in the words of CEO Don Corbett, “converts the smartphone into a child safety device”.
The service is being launched to tie in with an antibullying forum hosted today by Ireland’s Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, TD. As well as today’s forum, Quinn is establishing a working group on tackling bullying, including homophobic bullying, cyberbullying and racist bullying.
Funded so far privately to the tune of around €250,000, MobileMinder is a graduate of the DCU Propeller Programme for start-ups.
Corbett and his colleague Brian Shannon have developed a proprietary technology that sits on smartphones and allows parents to make sure their children are both physically and mentally safe from the activities of bullies on the street or cyberbullying via social networks.
Made up of two parts, the first part of the service is the MobileMinder application which is installed on the child’s smartphone. The second part is the MobileMinder online platform where a parent can protect their child by viewing the child’s phone activity and location.
Included in the technology is a Social Circle feature that provides a parent with a visual display of who their child has relationships with in terms of the contacts in their phone book. It provides a detailed breakdown of interactions so parents are familiar with the contacts.
The Location feature lets parents see where their children are, but also where they’ve been for the previous 24 hours.
A special Geo-Fencing component allows parents to set ‘safe areas’ on a map and this sends notifications every time a child exits or leaves these areas at specific set times.
Another feature is Flagged Messages, which automatically filters messages on a child’s phone to prevent cyberbullying and grooming, and also alerts parents if any inappropriate messages arrive on their child’s phone. HelpMe is an instant alert button a child can press if he or she is in danger or lost. This triggers a message to the parent’s phone and the child’s exact location is marked on an interactive map.
"Smartphones have become so powerful now that there is no reason why they cannot also function as a child safety device," Corbett explains.
Corbett says the software can be downloaded via the internet for an initial 30-day trial, adding that a number of mobile operators in Ireland, Europe and the US have expressed an interest in the technology. In the US, where thousands of children go missing every year, the technology has featured on various afternoon television shows, as well as internet news site The NextWeb.
"Our Geo-Fencing technology is a proprietary system based on open-source software. We were watching how all the different mobile gaming and smartphone technologies were evolving and felt that they could be put to more practical use to put parents’ minds at ease and act as a real ally if danger arose.
"An important aspect of the technology in terms of the parent-child relationship is that it enhances the trust between a parent and child and the child can know their parent is looking after them, not spying on them."
As well as protecting children from danger on the street, the software also gives parents peace of mind in terms of their child’s use of apps and where they go on the web.
For example, a MobileWeb History feature provides parents with the web browsing history on their child’s phone while an Application Usage feature shows what apps their child is using. Another feature, Gallery, ensures children don’t receive inappropriate pictures on their phones.
MobileMinder’s technology spreads internationally
Corbett and Shannon’s technology is being used in the US and United Arab Emirates and has been localised for the English, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese markets.
"The digital world is changing and in the average home children can be connected via a multitude of devices, from smartphones to their PlayStation Vita to personal computers, and originally we thought about creating a smart hub within the home to give parents peace of mind.
"But it is apparent that children will carry digital devices with them all the time and so we created a cloud-based system that will help protect those kids and give parents the comfort and security they need these days," Corbett says.