Caught In The Web

6th September 2008

Heather Harris questions just how safe the internet is for our children.

One in five British children has met up with a stranger whom they first encountered online, a recent poll suggests. And nearly a quarter of children between the ages of eight and 12 are ignoring age restrictions to use social networking sites. This means that more than 750,000 children are illicitly using the sites – supposed to be limited to teenagers and adults – according to a survey by online information company, Garlik.

To someone who doesn’t know her Facebook from her Bebo, her MySpace from her MSN this is a particularly terrifying statistic. And I’m by no means alone – according to Ofcom over 75% of parents of children aged 12-15 agree that their child knows more about the internet than they do and while 79% of children use IM (instant messaging), 29% of parents (me included) don’t know what it is. We are too busy getting to grips with online grocery shopping to contemplate an electronic conversation.

At a recent meeting organised by Hertfordshire Local Authority on the whole issue of Electronic (E)-Safety, the main message was the need for parents to embrace the new ‘screen culture’ rather than be scared of it.

“So many parents just ban or restrict their children on the internet rather than actually asking them what they are doing and trying to understand more about chat rooms and messaging services,” said Nicola Sanders from Childnet International, the charity set up in 1995 to address online child protection.

She went on to encourage parents to set up their own social networking page as a way of getting involved with their children’s online habits. By embracing the new technology, there will be a greater openness within families to discuss anything worrying which old or young may come across online.

The problem is that in reality, rather than talk to youngsters directly, and despite a fundamental lack of confidence with the technology, 72% of parents secretly log on to their children’s networking pages to spy on their activities, according to Garlik’s survey of 1,030 parents and 1,000 children.

Commenting on the findings, Tom Illube, Garlik’s chief executive, warned that “children are at the vanguard of the social networking phenomenon,” using such sites, “in the same way other generations used the telephone”.

“What you find with young people is that they tend to be a lot looser with their personal information than more canny older people. In an environment when they’re mixing with people much older than them then that’s something to be quite cautious about,” he said.

More than a quarter of eight to 15 year olds admitted they have strangers as ‘friends’ on these sites and two-thirds said they had posted personal information on their pages including details of their school and mobile phone number.

What is being done to stop this worrying trend? Tom Illube believes that the social networking sites themselves have a responsibility, observing that “busy parents can’t be expected to monitor children’s activities all the time. Facebook, MySpace and Bebo need to take their age restrictions policy of 13 and 14 years far more seriously to help allay parent’s fears.”

The growing number of charities, governmental and educational organisations now set up to tackle e-safety is more realistic about who will act to tackle the problem. And surprise, surprise, it’s us parents – as well as teachers – who are seen as the key.

As a spokesperson from CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, told me “Where children go then sex offenders will follow – whether in the real or virtual world – and it is up to parents to teach their children how to stay in control and be safe online”.

The Centre, set up in 2006 by the UK police force to stop the sexual abuse of children, has a very user-friendly website full of practical advice and guidance for children – simple things such as never giving out personal information or photos of themselves, only using moderated chat rooms, never meeting up with an online friend without permission and not believing everything they read on screen (nearly two-thirds of 8-11s and of 12-15s told Ofcom that they trusted online content).

There is also a ‘Report Abuse’ button. “Click on it and your child can make a direct report to us about an instance of inappropriate contact they may encounter. This is a virtual police station and we strongly recommend that parents use it and make their children – if appropriate – aware of it,” is CEOP’s advice.

Strong stuff… but the statistics support its importance, with a 2006 Internet Survey of 10,000 teenagers finding that 40% of boys and 57% of girls had been asked to undress on a webcam (a camera attached to a computer which allows users to see each other). Around one third of young people also reported having received unwanted sexual or ‘bullying’ comments. Only 7% of parents think their child has received such messages.

It is hardly surprising that the widely held advice is for all computers in the home to be in communal areas but, as one mother of four pointed out, “It’s just not possible. With homework now being set online the children have to have laptops and use them in their bedrooms where it’s quiet”.

The proportion of children with internet access in their bedroom has in fact increased significantly since 2005 – from 3% to 9% for 8-11year olds, and from 13% to 20% for the 12- 15s according to latest Ofcom figures.
Some parental piece-of-mind can be bought over the counter – sales of privacy and parental blocking software have soared in recent years. But again children are one click ahead of even the manufacturers and can quickly learn how to switch off these settings or bypass them. And for sites such as You Tube, which gets two million videos added to its stock of 100 million every month, the non-text and ever changing nature of the content makes filters ineffective.

Ironically, in this increasingly hi-tech world, the most effective weapon against online grooming, bullying or threatening – is, as Nicola Sanders said, the simple act of talking face to face.

All schools, starting at primary level, are now expected to offer lessons in E-Safety, with Childnet’s Kidsmart Internet Safety Programme already being rolled out to school’s nationwide. CEOP also operates a ‘safety first’ education programme called Thinkuknow. This has now reached over 1.7 million UK children through visits to classrooms by specially trained police officers.

There’s also a plethora of useful websites [see inset] for parents, to encourage them to talk to their children about not only the dangers but also the positive aspects of all the new technologies.

After all, it’s a fine balance we tread; restrict children’s access to the internet and we are taking away from them a huge window (excuse the pun) on the world. Future employers will demand an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of online communication while modern relationships rely on ‘screen chat’ in order to flourish.

Take away technology and our digital native children will become social outcasts. Learn to love and understand it and it can then become a safe, educational and entertaining part of family life – just as huddling around the wireless was for our grandparents and sitting in front of The Generation Game was for us middle-aged parents.

Useful websites:

www.parentscentre.gov.uk - This Department for Education and Skills website is specifically designed for parents and carers to help them understand the role of the internet in children’s education. Childnet have helped to develop content for parents and there is a comprehensive section on internet safety.

www.childnet-int.org - A non-profit making organisation working directly with children, parents and teachers to ensure that the issues of online child protection and children’s safe and positive use of the internet are addressed. Childnet International produce an online CD guide specifically for parents KnowITAll - www.childnet-int.org/kia/

www.thinkuknow.co.uk - The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre has a website which has been designed and written specifically for different ages of children to ensure children stay safe on the Internet. There is an area on this website dedicated to parents called Purely Parents where you can register for monthly email updates.

www.kidsmart.org.uk - Kidsmart is an award winning practical internet safety programme website for schools, young people, parents, and agencies, produced by the children's internet charity Childnet International.

www.getsafeonline.org - A government sponsored one-stop-shop for reliable, up-to-date information about online safety, to give home users and small businesses the advice they need to use the Internet safely.
www.internetsafetyzone.co.uk – A government sponsored web site developed to inform parents and children about how to be safe on the Internet.

www.bullying.co.uk - One in five young people have experienced bullying by text message or via email. This web site gives advice for children and parents on bullying.

www.chatdanger.com - This website is about the potential dangers with interactive services online like chat, IM, online games, email and on mobiles. It provides information, advice, true stories and games. The resource page also contains a number of links to other useful websites.

www.virtualglobaltaskforce.com - advice and support for those concerned about online child abuse.

Find Your Local