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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

I had the terrific opportunity recently to interview Silje Vallestad, the founder of Bipper. This company has developed a mobile app that helps parents monitor kids’ cell phone effectively and in a healthy respectful manner.

Unfortunately, the recording I tried to make was just terrible! Rather than subject you to that awfulness, I made an article out of it, and this is what I present below. You’re welcome.

And I’m sorry. It was a great interview. Except for the horrible sound quality, the dog that yiped throughout, and the fact that Silje’s voice barely registered. Ugh. Awful. I’ll do better in future.

When her daughter was 6 and started attending school, Silje saw that 10-12% of 6 year olds had cell phones.  Now in Scandinavia, it’s 40% of 6-7 year olds and 100% of 19 year olds have cell phones.  It’s now the norm for kids get cell phones when they start school.  Silje was shocked to see so many kids have them, but felt safer as a mom to know her daughter could get help if needed while walking to school.  It’s a 10-15 minute walk and she didn’t want her to be alone and vulnerable during that time.

In addition, all of the social media and information accessible on the web is scary.  Silje wanted a way to monitor how her cell phone was being used but still respect her privacy.  Additionally, she wanted her daughter to have a way to call for help quickly.  After a lot of research, she created Bipper, the company who developed MobileKids.  This app gives parents a bird’s eye view of their children’s activity on cell phones.

MobileKids has an SOS alert function.  When the child clicks it, the phone reaches out to a small group of people that the parent has designated.  The alert goes to the parent with a link to a map that is GPS enabled, and that map will show in real time where the child is and whether they’re moving.  In addition, the child can simply click the Follow Me button, and parents can walk with him live via the GPS tracing.  Clicking the I’m Here button notifies the parent of the child’s location easily.

Back when phones were attached to the walls in homes, parents had an easier time monitoring whether their children were on the phone or not, and who was calling.  Kids certainly had a much more difficult time talking late into the night, and apps or web browsers were not even imagined by most.

With this app, parents can define limits to phone use, whether it’s encouraging sleep at night or managing how many minutes the phone is used.

MobileKids gives parents the opportunity to guide kids but still respects their privacy.  The app installs on the parent’s phone and the child’s.  After that, if the child adds an app to the phone or is calling outside of the hours the parent sets, an alert goes to the parent.  If the app is objectionable or concerning, the parent can block that app from their phone.  One item to note: as of the writing of this article, Apple does not allow apps on one phone to control settings on another.  If you want the full functionality of this app at your disposal, your child needs to have an Android or Symbian handset.

Silje’s daughter (who is now 13), for example, installed InstaGram on her phone.  This gave Silje the chance to ask her about it and talk about how the app is used.  Her daughter had installed it because it seemed like a fun thing to do, but was unaware that the images she uploaded would be available to anyone.  Talking about it gave Silje the chance to educate her daughter on privacy concerns and help her learn how to manage the privacy settings on the app.  It was a win for both.  Silje was able to do her terrific parenting thing, and her daughter got to use the app in a protected way.

If Silje had tried to just randomly talk about InstaGram earlier, it’s possible her warnings would have fallen on deaf ears.  Her daughter wasn’t interested in the app before then.  Any of us with teen children are familiar with the eye-rolling, “I know Moooooommmm” and other typical teen reactions that occur when we’re trying to alert them to danger that they just don’t see as threatening.

I personally love how the app allows parents to have calm healthy conversations with kids about the technology they’re using before there’s a problem.  In the event of a problem (the child gets access to pornography, for example), the parent gets upset.  Anger interrupts learning.  An angry conversation may be effective at establishing boundaries and consequences, but it often doesn’t teach the child what the positive choice would be in the future.

With MobileKids the parent can see when the child is communicating with, but does not get transcripts of those calls or texts.  This allows the parents to have conversations with kids about the best use of apps, and also to keep an eye on relationships without being right in the middle of them.  For example, if there is a lot of texting going on with a best friend that suddenly stops, the parent can say, “How are things going with your friend?”  It could be that some kind of conflict has taken place and the child doesn’t know how to resolve the problem.  Additionally, if someone new suddenly starts texting or calling, the parent can see that a new person is in their child’s life and be in a position to get to know them sooner rather than later.

As parents we’ve gotten rather accustomed to monitoring every breath our children take.  There is wisdom in giving them some space and privacy though.  They need the opportunity to experiment with managing relationships and technology without their parents doing it for them.  With an app like MobileKids, parents can maintain some boundaries without smothering their children.  A good friend of mine pointed out the difficulty we face: back when we were kids passing notes in school, those notes were fairly private.  Parents certainly rarely saw and read them.  Now, notes on Facebook or even email are visible to many more people (sometimes the planet) and they never go away.

MobileKids isn’t a spying program.  Kids know it’s on their phone and they know what limits you have set.  This may cause some hesitation at first, because it’s often harder to be up front with that.  Kids reflexively test limits.  Many will act upset and object to the app on their phone.  It is, however, a healthy way to set boundaries and provide some structure and safety.  In the long run, the healthy conversations that take place as a result of this app are a whole lot better than the anger that will erupt when a child learns you’ve been spying on them.

Additionally, by setting the limits but giving children privacy and respect, you’re saying to them that you trust them to handle the details.  Children will rise to the level of expectation they perceive.

An additional app was created as a result of this called bSafe, which is for older teens and adults.  Women were reporting that the safety feature of MobileKids was something they wanted to use, so a separate app with just that functionality is now available.  Again, a group of individuals the user has defined can get a safety alert and link to a map to know where she is.  bSafe is more appropriate for older teens who have outgrown MobileKids, and adult women who might be in situations where they want some additional access to help.  If the app is triggered, the alert goes out, a siren starts blaring and lights flashing right from the phone.

One part of the service that is in development is an automatic alert going to the local emergency response department no matter where you are in the world. 

MobileKids is available for Apple, Android, and Blackberry phones.  The mobile tablet version is under development right now.
MobileKids has a free basic version (includes the SOS alarm and basic report) and a premium version (with many more features) offered at $5.99 per month or $59.90 per year for the family.

Earnest Parenting: helping parents set safe limits for cell phone use.