By Paul Grossinger
“Safe Driving ON.”
Looking down at his new android smartphone, James Zhou stares at the screen for a second, ensuring that the feature is turned on. Then he shakes his head.
“It’s so simple now, what parent wouldn’t want to use it?”
Zhou, a software architect, is the CEO of Pervasive Group Inc., a new East Coast software startup that creates mobile technology to help parents control their children’s smartphones. It is part of the mobile parental control sector; a growing industry set to explode over the next five years as more than 200 million new pre-teens and teens begin using smartphones by 2016, according to Neilsen.
The statistics are jarring, startling nearly every parent with a child over eight but under eighteen. Nearly 31% of teens today own smartphones, a percentage that grows annually by more than 10%. If current trends continue, nearly 100% of U.S. teens will own a smartphone within five years, according to Pew Research.
Parents are struggling to keep up, often unable to match the technological savvy of their children and keep their impressionable teens out of danger. So entrepreneurs like Zhou and his co-founder, Joel Holl, are stepping up to provide new, easy tools for parents to use to keep their children’s phone use safe.
“We are parents,” Holl said, referring to his own pre-teen children. “We have a dog in this fight.”
“Parents,” Holl continued, “face critical and worsening challenges that are unique to smartphones. The devices put incredible power in the hands of emotionally immature teens, and they innately contain barriers that inhibit parents’ control. Without help, how can parents monitor texts and calls for safety, when their children can delete them instantly? How can they know about dangerous apps, when they don’t have continuous access to the phone? How can they stop their teens from texting while driving, when they are not there?”
The raw statistics reinforce parents’ concerns because, not only is smartphone use dramatically accelerating, the devices are creating serious new problems. Texting and driving increases crash risk by a factor of 23 and nearly 3000 teens die and 400,000 are injured in distracted driving accidents every year.
Teen opaqueness left a hole in traditional parenting strategies, particularly communicating directly with children to discuss potential issues directly. While Pervasive Group’s founders agree that talking to children remains the most critical step for every parent, they believe that mobile software provides value by increasing parents’ ability to garner knowledge about their children’s digital lives. 25% of all children are exposed to sensitive or pornographic material online or on mobile, and 20% have received direct sexual solicitation from chat-rooms, websites, or mobile apps, according to Pew.Only 1 in 4 ever tell a parent. That knowledge, in turn, helps parents decide what actions to take to protect their teens’ mobile safety.
“Parents’ lack of knowledge and options was what got us started,” Holl said. “We decided: there has to be a better solution.”
Protection for Children; Peace of Mind for Parents
Nearly a year ago, Zhou began work on creating that option for parents; developing the MMGuardian Parental Control mobile application for smartphones. His goal was to create software that enabled parents to monitor and control the critical functions of their child’s smartphone from their own phone via text message, allowing parents to manage their children’s safety on the go.
“We found most parents don’t want to control and monitor everything, every second; they want control when and where they need it,” Zhou said. “MMGuardian provides that control. Parents send short text commands right from their own phone to lock their child’s phone instantly, locate and track it, set time limits for phone usage, manage and remove dangerous applications, monitor text messages for bullying or sexting, and of course prevent texting while driving.”
Parents have responded by downloading MMGuardian off of Android’s Google Play smartphone store nearly 50,000 times. The technology world has taken notice, with high profile website Tech Crunch covering Pervasive Group this November.
“We are encouraged by the sheer number of parents enthusiastic about what we are doing,” Zhou said, “and the over 5,000 daily users of our app. And we are planning to keep working; planning to build in absolutely everything that parents need.”
Soon, Zhou hopes, protecting teens will be as easy as typing a few simple words.
“Safe Driving ON.”