The SC Blog

Let's keep Pokémon Go safety fears in perspective

Every new technology, especially if it's aimed at children, has been met with consternation by those who don't yet understand it, and Pokémon Go is proving to be no exception.

Two of the things you may encounter in the park while playing Pokémon Go
Two of the things you may encounter in the park while playing Pokémon Go

Something amazing happened last Saturday morning: my son woke up, quickly scarfed his breakfast and ran outside to play.

This is the boy who is normally glued to his computer at every opportunity, the boy who thinks that it's a fundamental violation of his human rights to be dragged out of his room at mealtimes.

What's wrought this change? Not surprisingly it's another computer game, Pokémon Go. This is an app that runs on a mobile phone and extends the fictional world of Pokémon into the real world.

A map on your phone shows locations where Pokémon hang out, waiting to be discovered. These could be parks, shops and in one case a police station in Australia. Meanwhile, churches are lining up to have their places of worship designated as ‘Pokestops' presumably to encourage greater footfall.

The technology is ingenious: using your phone's video camera, it superimposes images of the Pokémon creatures on the screen so they appear to be standing on the ground in front of you.

Players can capture the Pokémon by throwing PokéBalls at them and then add them to their Pokédex.

As I write this, my son is running around the neighbourhood, gathering PokéBalls and capturing Golbats and Bulbasaurs. I couldn't be happier for him.

Should I lament the fact that my son hasn't gone outside for the purpose of playing conkers or climbing trees? In a word, no.

I think it would be unrealistic to expect him to turn his back on technology and had these computer games been available in my youth (anyone remember the ZX Spectrum?) – well, let's just say my younger self is insanely jealous of my son.

The potential of real-life games and apps is just beginning to be explored and opportunities to interact with the real-world through our devices will only grow.

The ill-fated Google glasses aside, heads up displays and real-time overlays will deliver information to us in ever more imaginative ways and my son, along with millions of other children (and adults) who will play this game, are grabbing it with both hands.

However, no discussion of technology and children is complete without a bit of hand wringing, and it would actually be irresponsible not to consider the safety and security implications of this new technology.

The first thing that occurred to me as my son was registering to use the game was the fact that the game's developer, Niantic, now has detailed knowledge of my son's whereabouts because of the game's need to geo-locate itself. Has my son just sold out his privacy for the opportunity to chase cartoon animals around the neighbourhood?

Some people might say yes, but I am not sure I agree.

For me it comes down to the difference between privacy and anonymity, two concepts that are related by identity and activity but are by no means the same thing. Privacy means my identity may be known but my activities are secret, while anonymity means my actions may be known but my identity is secret.

By registering to play the game, my son could have sacrificed his privacy (because Niantic knows where he is and what he is doing) but by registering using a pseudonym, he has preserved his anonymity.

Is it worth it? Let's just say that I have made far greater sacrifices of my privacy and anonymity to use online services such as mail, office applications, maps and much more – it puts my son's information giveaway in the shade.

Of more potential concern – and it is highly theoretical – is the potential for the game to be used by predatory adults. The NSPCC has written an open letter to the managing director of Nintendo UK  to raise these issues (Nintendo is the owner of the Pokémon brand, while Niantic is the mobile app developer which has been licensed to develop Pokémon Go).

Every parent recognises the fear that their child could be preyed upon by a stranger, and the NSPCC's CEO Peter Wanless warns that predatory adults could use the game and that inappropriate locations are being designated as Pokestops such as a sex shop in Devon.

Wanless claims basic safety standards appear to have been overlooked in the rush to develop the game.

However, as a parent who is concerned about online safety – but also concerned about my children's health and ability to have fun – I feel it's important to keep these fears in perspective.

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of abused children are victimised by people who are part of their family network. And people who have an unhealthy interest in children will always gravitate to where the children are, even seeking out jobs which give them access to children or, failing that, loitering in locations where kids hang out.

In my youth, we were warned that sometimes there were creepy men in the park and we learned to steer clear of them. Paedophiles were perfectly able to prey upon children pre-technology – the evolution of technology changes little.

We as parents need to educate our children to recognise and avoid the dangers they face in the world, not attempt to wrap them in cotton wool.

Don't misunderstand me – I applaud the work of the NSPCC, and recently, in fact, my son showed me an animated cartoon about the dangers of sexting which had been produced by the NSPCC, an example of an important safety message being conveyed in a child-friendly way.

Meanwhile, my son has returned from his adventures, not because he wanted to come in but because his phone was running out of charge.

Sweaty and breathless, he tells us how he covered nearly three kilometres around the neighbourhood, mostly running, as he went from the ponds at the park to the local church and then to the recreation grounds, chasing Pokémon and reinforcing Pokémon gyms.

Along the way, he met two other children who were also playing the game and after a brief chat to exchange notes, they went their separate ways. But I can't help thinking that they will encounter each other again on their adventures and perhaps strike up a friendship.

Online gaming need not be isolating. My son already has a wide and active circle of friends online, a mix of children he knows from school and those he only knows through games.

Hopefully real-world games will be a stimulus to get children out of the house. Who knows, at some point they might even be tempted to put the phones away and have a go at conkers.


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