Although it may not get as much attention as the shiny new iPhones or some of the other features in the newly released iOS 17, Apple’s operating system update has some important safety features for children, teens and parents, including content created for Apple by ConnectSafely. I serve as CEO of ConnectSafely, which was contracted and compensated by Apple to write online safety content displayed on iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple Watches.
Communications safety feature
With this new version, Apple’s Communication Safety feature, which warns children when receiving videos or images that contain nudity, is expanding. The feature will be added to FaceTime video messages, Contact Posters and the Photo picker that people use to select photos or videos to share or upload. And, by default, it will be turned on for all children enrolled in a family-sharing plan. Unless it’s disabled, any incoming nude images on a child or teen’s phone will be blurred. Before any images containing nudity can be sent or viewed, the child or teen will be warned that the image contains sensitive content. They will receive access to online safety advice and have a chance to avoid receiving or sending the image. The image processing of these photos takes place on the device, not in the cloud, so no one at Apple or any other party will have access to the content.
In addition to protecting children, Apple also offers adult users an optional “sensitive content warning” that is turned off by default, but if enabled, it will “detect nude photos and videos before they are viewed,” and provide guidance “to help make a safe choice.” This feature will not prevent adults from sending or receiving such images if they choose to do so, and like the feature for children and teens, all processing is done on the device.
ConnectSafely content part of iOS
In the U.S., the Screen Time section of iOS, where all family accounts are configured, already had links to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s tip line, where users can report child sexual abuse material as well as resources from Thorn and Crisis Text Line. But starting with iOS 17, there will also be general online safety information available globally, with separate sections for preteens, teens and parents. This content was created by ConnectSafely.org in partnership with Apple.
Anyone can access the content for parents on an iPhone or iPad by going to Settings, clicking Screen Time followed by Communications Safety and “View Child Safety Resources.” You can also access the content from the Sensitive Content Warning screen in the Privacy and Security section.
ConnectSafely content includes advice on sexual grooming, the posting and receiving of inappropriate photos and videos, and in-depth information on cyberbullying, with advice for young people as well as advice for parents whose children have been cyberbullied or have cyberbullied others. There is also content on cybersecurity, privacy and recommendations about other general safety topics.
Talking with children and teens
The safety material on Apple devices advises parents to talk with their children, preteens and teens about all aspects of staying safe online, with specific advice organized by age group on issues related to sharing nude and otherwise inappropriate photos and videos.
Parents are advised that “communication is the key” and to “express interest in the apps your child uses and the sites they visit … so you can understand the platform, its privacy settings and why your child likes it.” The conversation, said ConnectSafely, “can be short, but you should revisit it periodically. Reassure them that if something bad happens, you’ll be there for them.”
Within iOS, ConnectSafely also advises parents to “consider using tools like Screen Time to monitor your child’s device use, but make it a learning experience and revisit any controls as your child matures.”
Advice for kids and teens
In addition to the advice for parents, ConnectSafely has developed age-appropriate content specifically for children, with separate sections for kids under 13 and teens. The materials for young children were written with advice from children’s book author Julia Cook and are displayed if a child receives or is about to send a potentially nude image. Children and teens will be given just-in-time access to age-appropriate ConnectSafely advice if they are sent or try to send a nude image.
In addition to the Communications Safety features, Apple has added some privacy features, including an update to its Safari browser, which Apple says has advanced tracking and fingerprinting protections that “go even further to help prevent websites from using the latest techniques to track or identify a user’s device.”
Apple’s new embedded Photos picker enables users to share specific photos with apps while “keeping the rest of their library private,” according to Apple.
On a personal note, I have to say that I’m very excited about the opportunity to provide online safety advice on the newest version of an operating system that is used by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide. It’s my hope that the material we’re providing to adults, children and teens around the world will have an impact in making connected technology safer — and therefore better — for everyone.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
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