Selling safety: Mobile must allay parental concerns

In other industries, blue-chip companies are falling over themselves to implement corporate social responsibility programmes. By contrast, says Chris Couch, the mobile industry seems to discount an opportunity to act responsibly on child protection and the concerns of parent. After all, it’s a way to to strengthen loyalty and to protect (even increase) revenues …

Back in the 1990s, AOL’s move to tackle child protection issues proved a clever approach. With the growth of internet access from home PCs, parental worries about children being able to access unsuitable content exploded. AOL offered parental monitoring tools and reaped the rewards.

Today the mobile industry is at a similar point, as problems such as text bullying and children’s access to porn via the mobile internet are widely acknowledged. Incidents of mobile bullying are all too common – surveys have shown that as many as one in five youngsters have been victims. In addition, cases of “happy slapping”, where assaults on children and adults are recorded on mobile phones and sent via video messaging, continue to hit the headlines.

For years there has been debate over the use of mobile phones in schools. Incidents have included teachers threatening strike action after a pupil, expelled for taking a picture of a female teacher’s cleavage on his mobile phone was allowed to return to his school in Newcastle. Earlier this year, an incident in Scotland, in which a 15 year old boy was filmed allegedly assaulting a rector, led to further calls from teaching union representatives to remove mobiles from the classroom.

Short term fixes
Ultimately, while an outright ban on mobiles in schools may provide short term protection against harassment, it is not going to teach children how to use mobile technology responsibly. What is needed is a way of protecting against bullying, while at the same time encouraging children to act responsibly with their phones.

Mobile operators have hesitated to face up to, and deliver, parental control plans, because they do not want to invest resources in implementing services that seem, at first glance, to limit a child’s mobile phone use and, as a result, diminish a revenue source. A survey conducted for ACE*COMM showed that 52% of teens use their mobiles to text and talk during school hours. If mobiles are banned from schools, this would certainly impact carrier revenues.

But there is another case to be made here. Taking responsibility for protecting children can improve a company’s standing in the eyes of consumers and bring a number of business benefits. Operators can achieve both outcomes by adding content-management and personalisation services that encourage greater use of cell phones, not less. By appealing to what parents want and need, carriers will increase subscriber numbers, thereby eliminating the possible negative, and actually increases revenue. In addition, with annual churn rates for the mobile industry at 30%, operators that offer plans with parental controls – whereby four or five members of the same family are on one plan – are likely to increase customer loyalty and discourage families from changing providers.

Ireland already has a government-backed code of practice that requires each operator to adhere to structures allowing parents to control under 18s’ access to mobile services such as adult content. It surely can’t be long before the UK follows suit.

"We need a way of protecting against bullying, while at the same time encouraging children to act responsibly …"

Too many operators seem to place greater importance on protecting existing revenue and keeping the network running than on introducing uniquely innovative new services. But how can they expect to increase revenue and develop strong brand loyalty if they don’t respond to customer demand for new offerings? Investing in positive and ultimately profitable service offering should not wait for government regulation and lawmaker force.

It will be interesting to see if one UK player will take the initiative and move into this space. It would certainly provide a clear differentiator and give that carrier a lead both on moral grounds – demonstrating a commitment to protecting children – and in business terms, having a competitive edge over the others.

It is getting harder and harder for operators to differentiate themselves on tariffs and plans and the differentiator now has to be value-added services. If operators move away from the mentality of not disturbing their current status quo, they stand to gain on all fronts from adopting a positive stance on providing services for parents to monitor and control their children’s phone usage. The first operator to offer a service like this in Europe will have an incredible opportunity on which to capitalise.

Chris Couch is chief marketing officer for ACE*COMM, a specialist provider of operation support systems for telecos — including parental controls.

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