Understanding How Content Gets on These Devices

In Brief

There are four ways content will get onto a computer, gaming, or mobile device: 1) Through a service 2) From the Internet 3) created by the person 4) Sent by someone else. Parents concerned about content getting on devices in their home should understand these concepts.

Technology Overview:

Kids are connecting from everywhere. All computers, mobile phones, tablets and gaming devices today are portals for entertainment, information, and social interaction.  For most of us, that's why we have these devices!  We want that connectivity and access.  However, all of these devices can have unintended consequences: they can be used get access to content that we would all generally agree is inappropriate, pornographic, profane, and even harmful.  

It may very well be that the idea that your children might be exposed to some of this unwanted content might even be the reason why you accessed this safety guide.  So, to alleviate that fear and help you feel less overwhelmed with all this "technology", it's important to understand how content can get on to these devices. 

Four Ways Content can get onto a Device

The good news is that there are really only the following four ways that content can get onto a device:

  1. Through a Service:  Apple's iTunes and App stores, Google's Android marketplace, Netflix, and Hulu are simple examples of services that provide access to music, movies, TV shows, applications, and more.  You will sometimes hear these services called "walled gardens" because you can only have access to the content they provide.  It's self-contained.  "Walled garden" services will often provide content ratings and parental control options.  Parents should know that some of these services contain "R" or "NC-17" rated content.
  2. From the Internet: While it may seem obvious, the Internet is arguably the single biggest source of content.  Photos, videos, chat, and more are all available.  The simple rule of thumb is that if a device can connect to a cellular, wireless (WiFi) network, or allows for anything multiplayer then it most certainly has access to content on the Internet.  Unlike a "walled garden", where much of the available content is likely rated, content on the Internet is unrated, can be extremely graphic, or even pornographic.
  3. From Someone Else: Transmitting content from one device to another is extremely easy.  Whether it's receiving an email with an attachment or sending an MMS video or phone from one cell phone to another or getting a wall post Facebook, there are a number of ways that you or your kids can get content.  The simple rule of thumb is that if there is a service or way to communicate with a person (like email) then there is a high likelihood that you can also receive content.
  4. I Created it Myself: Next time you go into a store, see how many cell phones do not have built-in cameras or how many laptops lack built-in video cameras.  If you are lucky you might find one or even few.  The point is simple: all of these devices can create content.  Once audio, video, or photos are created, then they are stored on that device.  And be assured that if you can create it, then you can also share it.

General Observations

Knowledge is power.  Understanding how content can get on a device is the first step parents need to take.  Hopefully it's clear that the Internet isn't the only source of potentially content that parents need to be attentive to.  Content—including objectionable content—can come from a variety of places...even from our own kids.  Thus, when purchasing any device, parents should know:

  1. Does this device have access to any services? If so, what kind of content is available?  Do the services have content ratings (G, PG, PG-13, etc.) and parental control options to filter out content you may find objectionable?
  2. Does this device have access to the Internet?  If so, is it cellular-based Internet service or WiFi?  Can Internet access be turned off if needed?
  3. Does the device have email, MMS, or Social Networking applications that allow for the sharing of content? 
  4. What kind of content can the device create?  Can it take photos and video?  Can it record audio?  If so, does it have built-in sharing of that content via email, YouTube, Flickr, or other sharing services on the Internet?

Let's be clear: answering "yes" to any of the questions above doesn't mean that the device is dangerous or bad!  On the contrary, these questions are simply intended to help you to be better informed.  More and more capabilities are being packed into devices we're giving to our kids.  You need to know what those capabilities are.  Use that knowledge to engage your kids in using their devices appropriately.

Family Discussion Starters

What are some of the good and helpful things that you have seen people do with their cell phones and computers?

Have you seen your friends or other people do things with their cell phones or computers that were inappropriate or made you feel uncomfortable or even curious? If so, what were they?

What should you do if you see something through a cell phone or computer that seems inappropriate?

Parent's Checklist:
  • Does this device have access to any services?
  • If so, what kind of content is available?
  • Are there parental controls available on the device? If so, what do they do?
  • Does this device have access to the Internet?
  • Can Internet access be turned off if needed?
  • How can the device share content?
  • What kind of content can the device create?
  • What safety topics do I need to discuss with my kids to ensure safe use of this device?