Why Online Safety Will Never Work For Our Kids

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When I started Pinwheel I noticed a LOT of companies around parent / family tech use “safety” as their rallying cry and the basis for their brand. I get it. Safety for our kids pulls at our heartstrings as parents. We all want safety for kids. 

We can’t stand to see them hurt. In the dangerous world we see online, we feel extremely out of control to stop the possibility of harm. 

It makes sense that safety is something to aspire to and to work towards, and to be clear we talk about it A LOT and work on it A TON at Pinwheel. BUT, safety is never going to be there 100% for our kids… not offline... and not online. 

What will be there is the grounding they get from their family/community and the relationship we are able to forge with them. 

Today I heard a horrible and heart-breaking story. One of Pinwheel’s competitors promises safety as their #1 top priority. They are great marketers, better than we are at this stage of our company's life. Their product doesn’t actually DO much to protect kids, or to teach them anything at all, but yet they get traction through paid affiliates and strong “safety” messaging related to just the lack of apps/features available. Fair enough, one might conclude… until today. Today I heard about one of their customers, a 13 year old girl, who was approached and groomed through lies about her attackers age (claimed he was another teen, he was NOT) and eventually convinced to meet in real life with this adult male. Tragically, this young girl was ultimately raped by this man. 

This is the kind of event that when you hear about it, it just completely takes over your mind and won’t let go. As I think about how this will affect the rest of her life, her family (the guilt, the anger, everything they must be going through), the company they trusted, the promises made and broken, the sick perpetrator, our whole freakin’ society! It just is so sad. 

Now as a member of the kid tech industry, let me make a few demands of ourselves AND our peers: 

  1. Stop over-promising! Stop pretending we can be the answer to safety online. Yes, we can help. No, we cannot be the end all solution. Parents, communities and relationships with our kids can never be replaced by technology. Over-promising leads parents into a false sense of security that they’ve successfully out-sourced this job of safety online, which can lead to worse outcomes. 
  2. Stop under-delivering! Make better products. When your product doesn’t do basic things like allow parents to monitor texts, and/or you haven’t spent the time to get great partners who are a bit further along (see Pinwheel’s partnership with Bark) then you are part of the problem. When you under-deliver, kids can get hurt.

At Pinwheel, we decided early on that we were not going to anchor our brand around safety. Ironically, we do much more around safety than many competitors who do anchor on those features. However, our belief set is just different than others. Here’s what we believe: 

  1. We believe that “safety” features, while certainly necessary, will NEVER guarantee the safety of your kids. Nothing, in fact, can. That’s the world we live in. Therefore our best bet is to… 
  2. Teach them! We believe in teaching and showing how to use technology the right way, and allowing enough rope to see them use it less than perfectly, when the stakes are low enough and our oversight is close enough to catch mistakes before they become catastrophic. Does that mean your son might see a risqué picture… yes, it probably does (and he will be 18 one day and out of your oversight with the free ability to search for porn, that’s what should scare you into teaching now!). Does that mean your daughter might text with a boy she’s enamored with, yes it does. We should expect these things, and be there to teach and guide. 
  3. We believe our relationship with our kids matters most. Do our kids trust us? How can we build that trust stronger? How can we leverage that trust to teach correct principles? Ultimately, these small humans are learning to make their own choices, and make them they will. Our influence in those moments when nobody is around is felt through the trust we’ve built with them over years of small acts of service, love, understanding, emotional availability, teaching moments we seized… the hard stuff we can never package and sell. 
  4. We believe the right technology can really help. It can never replace you, but it can really help. We’re building that at Pinwheel, and trying to do that as responsibly as we can. 
  5. We believe technology has a bright side. It can help us be more productive, connect authentically, consume uplifting content, learn new skills, open our view to new cultures, and much more. We want our kids to learn to leverage technology for the bright sides! 

Thank you for sticking with me on this one, and share it if you believe along the same lines that we do.