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40% of Japanese Junior High School students exchange emails with strangers August 16, 2006

Posted by fukumimi in Communications, Japan, technology.
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This is rather disturbing.

The Asahi Shimbun reports (in Japanese) on research conducted by Professor Hirotsugu Shimoda at the Faculty of Social Information, Gunma University in conjunciton with the Mobile Society Reseach Institute (which is sponsored by NTT DoCoMo) into the email (via mobile phone) habits of Japanese teenagers. Virtually all Japanese phones have the ability to send proper email, not just SMS messages, so can also be used to communicate beyond the mobile phone networks (there are applications which allow this for overseas phones as well, but proper email functionality is standard on Japanese phones).

One of the major findings is that 43% of Junior High School children replied that they “often” or “sometimes” exchange emails with “meru-tomo” (which is a contraction of “me-ru tomodachi” which literally means “mail friend” and was defined for the purpose of this study as a friend you have never met but exchange emails with).

The survey was conducted in a total of 38 senior and junior high schools spread over 8 prefectures, a total of 4600 students. 34% of junior high school students and 97% of senior high school students responded that they had a mobile phone.

Of the students who have mobile phones, 25% of Junior High School students answered that they communicate with such strangers “often”, compared to only 8% of Senior High School students. About a third of students who communicate with “meru-tomo” replied that they have subsequently met these people they encountered on-line.

When asked about the ages of their “meru-tomo”, junior high school students responded (multiple response) Junior High School students 95%, Senior High School students 40%, others <10%. Perhaps these students are lulled into a false sense of security as they think their on-line friends are of similar age. But of course, it is so easy to lie about your age on-line. Paedophiles don’t usually go around advertising that they are middle aged men looking for some minors to groom and take advantage of.

More that 30% of junior high school students and 40% of senior high school students responded that they access sites which are people congregate to find “meru-tomo” or to discuss games and the like. Many minors are making on-line “friends” at these sites.

Whilst the mobile internet is (or, perhaps more appropriately, will be) seen in the US (for example) as an extension/off-shoot of the PC based internet, for many Japanese, the mobile internet was their first exposure to the internet, and many people use their phone more for email and web browsing than to make phone calls. I am certainly one of them.

Mobile phones are personal devices, and therein is the problem that partents and guardians face when attempting to shield their children from inappropriate content. A home PC based environment can be equipped with filtering software and logging software (if the parents knew more about their computers than their kids – not a given, of course), mobile phone carriers really do need to start giving serious thought to developing network services which address these issues.

NTT DoCoMo has one “Kids’ Keitai” in its line up, which has a integrated panic alarm, GPS (to track the whereabouts of your child) things like parental locks to prevent kids changing settings (including switching the thing off).

Realistically though, this phone is aimed at smaller children, and high school students will not want to carry around a phone that looks like a children’s toy.

More importantly I think is to provide network services which allow parents to prevent their children from accessing sites which are potentially harmful, or provide an access log to allow parents to see what their child is doing with their phone. Of course, children should have a right to a certain amount of privacy, and ideally parents will have taught their children not to engage strangers, or even dabble in “enjyo-kosai” (“assisted relationships” which is a roundabout way of saying casual prostitution), but unfortunately many teenagers are still extremely vulnerable to peer pressure and grooming by deviant adults however hard parents try to keep their children on the straight and narrow (and even more unfortunately, there are plenty of parents who neglect even that basic parenting role), and technology probably can play a useful role in preventing children getting into trouble.

[added 8/21. Kent Newsome has a post wherein he worries about when his kids will get hold of a mobile phone (ie how early is too early – I see little kids, definitely no more than 7 or 8, with phones here in Tokyo, but then in most cities you don’t see 7 year olds commuting to school on the train without accompaniment), and also ponders how technology might at the same time help him keep track of his kids. The features that he wishes for are already available in Japan, per the post above. The question is when other overseas carriers will implement similar services…]

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