The CNN article, “Parents, police monitoring kids’ cell phones” references several commercial services being utilized by parents in an attempt to monitor and control their children’s activities and interactions via cell phones. Referenced services include “My Mobile Watchdog” and “Mobile Spy.” The marketing teaser for “Mobile Spy” is:

Need to silently record SMS (text message) and call information of your child or employee? Learn the TRUTH with Mobile Spy, a completely stealth program! Mobile Spy records every SMS and logs every call including phone numbers with durations. View real time results in your private online account.

When parents, employers, and authorities suspect criminal behavior is taking place, there may be just cause for extreme measures to be taken to monitor and document behavior. I cringe to think parents may be resorting to commercial services like this, however, when their teen most likely needs more opportunities to communicate and develop a supportive, functional relationship with their parent(s) instead of a monitoring/stealth spying service.

Equally troubling on these commercial websites is the misrepresentation of “Internet safety” statistics to build a case to justify the purchase of offered services. On the “Child Safety Resources” page of “My Mobile Watchdog” we find the following sidebar of “research findings” purportedly related to cell phone use dangers:

Misrepresenting Internet Safety risks as cell phone risks

Note these statistics are from a 2005 National Center for Missing and Exploited Children survey and a 2004 iSafe Survey. That means, for starters, these statistics are FOUR AND FIVE YEARS old. Should that be a problem for a marketing pitch purporting to highlight CURRENT trends? It should be, but apparently the “My Mobile Watchdog” folks are assuming consumers won’t read the fine print or care.

The larger issue with this “research” citation, however, is that there is no indication either of these surveys had anything to do with cell phone use or cell phone Internet dangers at all. In reading the titles of the surveys, it appears they were focused on issues arising when young people were online via desktop or laptop computers, not via a cell phone. The marketing department of “My Mobile Watchdog” apparently believes consumers should make the enormous assumption that because students in 2005/2004 were reporting high levels of “bad” encounters online, that means kids today are encountering at least equal levels of “bad stuff” on their cell phones. Certainly the mobile web does offer plenty of offensive choices today, for those who go looking, but this leap of faith / analysis encouraged by this marketing example is not supported by the presented research and should not be accepted by consumers.

Interestingly, the i-Safe official website does not provide any links on its homepage to its own survey and research results. If i-Safe was really interested in sharing and disseminating objective data to help people make better decisions, they would provide ready links to those “research studies” which do NOT require a login to their protected site content.

Are students using cell phones today in ways which put themselves and possibly others at risk? Most certainly. The recent articles on “sexting” from ABC, CBS, and CNN (all linked on the current “My Mobile Watchdog” homepage) highlight the same thing we’ve known forever: Teenagers frequently make bad choices when it comes to relationships and friends. Can commercial products like “My Mobile Watchdog” or “Mobile Spy” offer a solution to the problem of teens sexting with cell phones? Will a school policy banning cell phones solve the problem? Absolutely not. This problem, like many others, is an issue of CHOICES. It’s about ethics. It’s about decision making. It’s about helping kids recognize the importance of carefully managing their digital footprint, encouraging them to dream big in their lives and work to make their dreams become a reality. A young person who has goals for the future and is being supported in their drive to achieve those goals is far less likely to make personally destructive choices and decisions than someone without goals.

Expensive mobile phone surveillance and monitoring plans, purchased in addition to the already VERY granular cell phone usage reporting included with monthly mobile phone bills, would be a waste of money for most families today. What is needed instead is more digital dialog.

To the marketing department of “My Mobile Watchdog” I offer the following advice: Please get your facts straight and don’t mis-represent research study findings in your fervent effort to fan the flames of parental fear regarding Internet dangers. At least find studies to cite in your marketing ads which actually focused on cell phone usage. The PEW Internet and American Life Project’s reports on mobile computing might be a good place to start.

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10 Responses to Misrepresenting Internet Danger Stats to Boost Sales

  1. Scott McLeod says:

    Ooh… now you’ve done it, Wes. The black hats are going to come after you! Don’t turn your back on your computer(s) ‘lest a keystroke logger be installed without your knowledge. And if you see black helicopters…

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Goodness I hope you’re wrong! That’s one of the last things I’d like to bring down on myself at this point…

    I need to make friends with more “white hats” fast…. 🙂

  3. Thank you for a good, well argued post…

  4. Janet Clarey says:

    Thanks for exposing the weaknesses of Mobile Sky’s “research.” Now, if you could just duplicate your process say, a zillion times for all the other fearmongorss who rely on such irresponsible tactics.

  5. gladman9 says:

    with all this tracking, my kids use you can send free text messages and they do it from my own home where I can see it!

  6. LSolansky says:

    Thank you for exposing how ludicrous it is for a parent, or whomever, to rely on such false advertisement! There are so many things out there that people put there full faith and trust is later found to be faulty. In my opinion, this whole software seems completely absurd in the fact that they believe that investing in swaying a parent to believe in such a program would hinder a child’s ethical and moralistic decisions. Therefore, it is great that you are taking the time to point out how everything is not what it seems and if companies want to sell a reliable item, they need to take the time to do the research.

  7. Wesley Fryer says:

    @Janet: I think we duplicate ourselves in contexts like this through media education efforts with students, parents, and other educators!

  8. Reality says:

    What to protect your children from sexual predators? It’s so easy. 1) Limit their use of the Internet to only directly supervised activities. No chat rooms, none of that toxic social networking garbage, but only research and homework. 2) No cell phones with text messaging. Kids DO NOT need cell phones. No, they really, really don’t. Young children should never be anywhere where a cell phone would be required, since they’d be under the direct supervision of adults. A argument can be made that teens may need a cell phone (a weak on — we never had them and we survived), but no argument can be made for texting. It is simple is never necessary and, indeed, undesirable. We are allowing our kids to exchange the reality of direct social interaction for an artificial world, where people aren’t always what they seem. That’s not god parenting.

  9. Steve says:

    Thank you! My wife teaches 8th graders and I work as the IT director in the school. Every year I see kids struggling as a result of mom and dad being their child’s friend instead of the parent. The time to bring back the family dinner is upon us.

  10. […] so many people are saying, managing your digital footprint, or digital identity is how people are going to […]

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