CES 2023: Singapore firm offers social media platform for kids where parents retain control

A demonstration by children’s wearables company MyFirst on how a parent’s smartphone is able to monitor content posted by the child’s smartwatch. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

LAS VEGAS – Children are getting their hands on mobile devices at a younger age, but some parents hesitate to grant them access to social media apps, for fear of cyber bullying, exposure to advertisements and online harms.

With these concerns in mind, home-grown tech company myFirst has created a social media platform for children aged 4-12.

Unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2023 in Las Vegas that was held from Jan 5 to 8, the myFirst Social Circle app allows parents to limit who can interact with their children online via a list of approved contacts, said founder and chief executive Yong G-Jay, 40.

The company is known for its line of colourful smartwatches for children. It has sold about 70,000 worldwide, including 20,000 in Singapore, said Mr Yong, who started the company in 2017.

Online safety for youngsters has been a concern for the authorities, including in Singapore, which is set to roll out its Online Safety Bill in 2023 to crack down on how social media firms operate. It will be mandatory for social media platforms to give tools for parents to manage the content that a young user can encounter online and limit any unwanted interactions.

myFirst’s approach to social media essentially gives parents complete control over who gets to interact with their children and take action to remove posts if they find that their child has posted something inappropriate online.

Addressing concerns of social media today, Mr Yong said it is a matter of time before children go online. “We can train them early so that when they join the main channels, they are prepared and know how to use it safely.”

The app’s measures are one up on current parental controls on most platforms for users under 18.

On Instagram, for instance, parents can opt to oversee their teen’s activities online under the “supervision” setting, allowing them to determine how much time a teenager spends online and get notified about who follows their teen. But the teens still own their account, said Instagram, and parents cannot see the teens’ search history and cannot see what they post unless they follow them or have a public account.

Mr Yong said the idea for the social media platform for children came to him during the pandemic, when his only child, seven-year-old Ru Faye, lost touch with many friends while cooped up at home due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“She lost touch with a lot of friends and would always come to my wife to ask her to help ring some of them,” Mr Yong said.

“Some parents do give kids a phone, but most don’t want them to use Facebook, Instagram or other apps,” he said, adding that most of these platforms are restricted to users 13 years old and above.

“These apps can be scary for children. I’ve read about incidents where children meet strangers online or read about fake news, or come across content about suicide.”

In spite of these risks, Mr Yong said there is still a place for children on social media as a means of connecting with friends from school and discovering new interests.

Using the myFirst Social Circle app, children can keep in touch with family, friends from school and relatives.

These contacts will first have to be approved by parents or guardians before the child can make any interaction, such as commenting on or reacting to another child’s posts, or having his posts seen by the other child. The restrictions do not apply to users aged above 13.

Once a friend request is accepted, parents will be prompted to tag the contact to one of four groups of relationships, comprising family, besties, friends and acquaintances.

Parents can then check on any posts uploaded by their child, such as a selfie with friends at school, and decide who gets to see it.

MyFirst chief executive Yong G-Jay with a smartwatch and the app on his smartphone. Mr Yong was inspired to create the app when his daughter lost touch with many friends while cooped up at home due to Covid-19 restrictions.  ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Young users can also form chat groups with their approved friends and family members and send voice messages or videos.

To set up an account, young users will have to scan a QR code available on their parent’s version of the Social Circles app.

For privacy reasons, parents will not be able to see their children’s private messages with other contacts, Mr Yong added.

The app will also do away with “likes”, as they can cause young users to crave attention online, he said.

This was a key finding during the app’s pilot among about 20 children, when some began to compare the number of likes that their posts racked up.

Mr Yong said the app will be enhanced later this year to detect profanities and alert parents when their children use foul language.

Safe tech for young children was an area of the market that was often overlooked, said Mr Chris Corse, a British distributor scouring the CES show floor for potential tech products to sell.

Mr Corse, who has two children, five and eight years old, said myFirst’s app would likely appeal to young families. “There’s not much protection for children online at the moment. Like myself, parents don’t want our children to be exposed to bad content, so that is a key part of promoting this app to parents.”

He added: “But it’s impossible to keep kids away – my kids are looking at my phone on my social media, and occasionally watch videos on their own.”

Another distributor, Ms Karin Caligari from Malta who was in the market for tech products for children, said the app will give parents peace of mind even as children go online at an increasingly earlier age.

The app is available for download for free on the App Store and Google Play Store, and will be pushed out to earlier models of myFirst smartwatches in an update.

MyFirst’s smartwatches come with apps, like a GPS tracker to inform parents where their children are. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

The brand also launched a new camera-equipped smartwatch – the myFirst Fone S3 – at CES that will come with the Social Circle app pre-installed.

Designed for children, the watches come with apps, such as a GPS tracker to inform parents where their children are, and a geofence feature that alerts parents when a child is not where he is supposed to be.

A child’s access to the watch’s features can be limited when he is in school by setting a timer via the parents’ app.

myFirst also launched new earphones, myFirst CareBuds, with a lower volume output to prevent children from harming their ears.

The device’s sound transparency mode will automatically kick in when it detects a user is walking, to ensure he can hear his surroundings and travel safely.

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