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EE offers online course to help children avoid a life of Internet misery

BT’s mobile division EE has launched an online course designed to teach children how to safely use the Internet when they get their first phone.

Called PhoneSmart, it consists of five interactive videos depicting young characters who grapple with subjects like bullying and fake news. Successfully completing each lesson earns the participant a sticker; collecting all five means the child qualifies for their so-called PhoneSmart Licence.

The course is available for free to anyone, not just EE customers and takes about an hour to complete. It is designed to appeal to children aged between 10 and 13, but it is also there to help parents assess their child’s readiness or otherwise for using their own smartphone.

Citing figures from UK telco regulator Ofcom, EE said 49 percent of 8-11-year-olds already have their own smartphone. That increases to 91 percent for those aged 12-15. Furthermore, research published by Ofcom last year revealed that 81 percent of children in the 12-15 bracket had at least one potentially harmful online experience in the preceding 12 months, such as bullying, trolling, unwelcome friend requests, offensive language or spam.

“Our EE PhoneSmart Licence is designed to prepare children for the big wide world that a connected device can open up for them, and give them the tools to stay safe and be kind online,” said EE CEO Marc Allera, in a statement.

It would be easy to dismiss PhoneSmart as little more than a gimmick and a chance to show off the EE brand to an impressionable audience, but the inaction by some online platforms when it comes to protecting their users highlights the need for initiatives like this one.

Revelations published by the Wall Street Journal last month showed how Facebook effectively exempts high-profile figures from some of its content moderation policies, giving them free rein to spout off any old nonsense, including blatant falsehoods and hate-speech. In addition, leaked internal research carried out by Facebook revealed it was aware of the negative effect that Instagram has on young women’s self esteem, despite playing it down in public.

Meanwhile, a quick look at what’s trending on Twitter will usually reveal which celebrity is taking a turn at being the unlucky recipient for that day’s quota of relentless abuse. It is hard to find recent stats on the volume of bile produced on Twitter, but a study in 2012 revealed that 15,000 nasty messages were being tweeted every day.

You only have to look at the long list of partners EE has worked with on PhoneSmart to know that platform operators are unable or unwilling to do the heavy lifting themselves to help younger users stay safe and happy online.

The course has been developed in partnership with Internet Matters, a portal launched by the UK’s big four telcos that offers advice to parents about keeping children safe online. The telco also consulted the Anti-Bullying Alliance; online safety advocates Childnet; child support network Home-Start; and the Marie Collins Foundation, which supports young victims of online sexual abuse.

To further justify the need for PhoneSmart, EE commissioned research that found 30 percent of parents are less worried about their little darling’s first day at school than they are about what will happen to them when they get their hands on their first smartphone. Just 21 percent of parents think children should enjoy complete privacy when it comes to what they get up to on their handset, while 69 percent are fine with checking their child’s phone while they are asleep.

Being realistic, stuff like PhoneSmart is not going to change an entire generation’s experience of the Internet and some of the horrible content and interactions that it offers. But if it helps just one person make the best of it, then it has already made a positive difference.

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