The internet has opened up a wealth of opportunity for connection and information access. However, for children, it can be an overwhelming and potentially dangerous place.
Children are getting online at ever younger ages, but the internet has evolved faster than regulators, the government and parents can keep up with. The recent 'Momo challenge' scare - where children were apparently being directed to engage in dangerous activities through Whatsapp messages - turned out to be a hoax, but it played on the very real fears of parents: that their children are at risk of being contacted and exploited by malicious predators online.
Harmful online phenomena affecting children run the full gamut from interaction with strangers to simply spending far too much time on the internet. Social media's ability to magnify and distort typical teen angst was highlighted by the landmark case of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who in November 2017 committed suicide after becoming involved in an Instagram community that circulated content relating to self-harm. Although a causal effect was not established, one British study found self-harm in girls aged 13-16 rose 68 percent between 2011 and 2014, during which time social media use soared among teens.
In the face of government stasis and the failure of tech giants to successfully self-regulate, other options are coming to the table. iKydz is one technological solution - a plug-in for routers that allows parents to set limits on content and times of use across an unlimited number of devices connected to the network. There is also a mobile solution that can be deployed through a QR code and allow parents to control content on their child's mobile device.
The idea for iKydz emerged from a personal life of co-founder and CEO, John Molloy. "It was my twelve-year-old daughter - with her two younger brothers following suit - and what they could do on the internet and how it was totally uncontrolled," he says. "I just needed to find some way that I could - wherever I was in the world - turn her off the internet, except for the various bits and pieces that she needed. That was the driver."
Concerning his daughter, he said his greatest fear was boundaries - he felt she was putting herself out there in a way that didn't account for the malicious actors seeking to exploit that. There was also the matter of time: she was spending far too long online in Molloy's opinion.
"In my personal experience, my daughter was in danger and several other people I've spoken to as I went through this journey were having the same problem but didn't know what to do or where to go," says Molloy. He adds that this is in fact how he and his co-creator ended up founding iKydz. "He asked me to help him with an issue they were having with his daughter and we discovered that this is a problem with strangers talking to people and trying to attract young girls to do things that they shouldn't be doing."
Social platforms such as Facebook and Tik Tok - beloved of teens - have a lower age limit of 13. However, savvy kids can easily sidestep these restrictions simply by entering a false date of birth. For example, research on Tik Tok which has been branded a 'hunting ground for child predators' found that 25 percent of children had connected with a stranger on the site. And as of yet, there are no moves to make age restriction protocols more stringent.
Perhaps due to the lack of self-regulation of platforms, the global parental control market was valued at around $1.4 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach approximately $3.3 billion by 2025.
"All children are beautiful and perfect, but there's a naivety around how they interact with strangers and how they interact therefore with the internet," says Molloy. However, he's not against children using the internet entirely. "I think the internet is absolutely brilliant. It's like their playground," he says.
"When I was growing up, I went to the park or to play football every day but that's not the case in the modern world. Their playground is the internet. You put railings around the football field and therefore you have to put railings around the internet."
This is something Molloy sees as not being sufficiently tackled by tech giants: "We do see companies like Apple and Google providing some elements, but unfortunately, it's more of a tick box 'we've done something' as opposed to being something for the children to help them manage their time on the internet."
Companies such as Facebook and Youtube employ moderators who check content, as well as algorithms flagging up suspicious appearing content. But repeatedly, calls from the populace, and parents in particular, demand more effective action. Some parties call for platforms to be made accountable for all of the content that appears on them. This would of course pose a regulatory nightmare for these companies, but advocates hope it would spur them into a more protective role.
"For too long social media sites have policed themselves and time and time again they have failed to abide by their own rules," said a spokesperson from NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). "Self-regulation of social media has completely failed. It has not protected children and young people from abuse and harmful content, including those that may be more susceptible to risks.
"We will keep holding the tech giants to account and campaigning for them to be forced to make their platforms as safe as possible for children to use. If they don't comply then they must face sanctions and large fines."
As part of its Wild West Web campaign, the NSPCC is currently campaigning for the creation of an independent regulator, safe accounts for children, and reporting on how they are keeping children safe.
Another selling point of the company's solution is that it is compatible with any operating system and device. "If a company like Google comes out with a solution, it's for Google only. If Nintendo comes out with a solution, it's for Nintendo only," says Molloy.
"What we do is control internet traffic as distinct from controlling a device. That gives us the ability to control a smart TV, an Xbox, a PS4, a Nintendo, a laptop, a tablet, a mobile phone," he continues. This means there is only one solution that you can run on iOS, Android or PC.
The founders of iKydz say that when they launched, they thought that Europe and the US would be the biggest markets for their product. However, they say they're currently receiving more interest and sales from the Middle East and China. Right now they're in conversation with the largest local operator in China about providing a solution for their platform. They say that as the project progresses, a pool of 500 million potential subscribers will be opened up to the company.
"We all think we're doing enough in the Western world, but in reality is we're not even getting close," says Molloy. "I would make the analogy that it took the car manufacturers 20 years having put seat belts in the cars before government legislates that everyone had to put seat belts on because so many people had been killed."
Co-founder Eddie Kilbane says in future in foresees the responsibility for child protections flowing upstream. "Making the operators themselves provide a platform for that to happen," he says. "You'll see that it will become the responsibility of the operator or the ISP to provide this more strict ruling."