Is the Internet Safe?
& Channels Director BiblioTech
The Internet and children, a topic that has had educators and parents
concerned on every continent. Everybody agrees that the Internet is an
informative, sophisticated and time-saving communications medium. However,
everyone also agrees that the Internet lacks a global and standardised
set of rules. This free-spirit of the World Wide Web has allowed
all sorts of materials to be published on the Internet. Some of these
materials are highly unsuitable for anyone under-18. But perhaps most
concerning is the real time chat rooms where people of all
ages mingle. All too often, young people have become victims of cyber-prowlers
and occasionally the ending can be tragic.
Recently more than 30 people in Manchester, including a man working for
a national youth organisation, were arrested for collecting and distributing
obscene computer images of children through of the Internet. "People
have referred to this as the dark side of the Internet," stated Med
Hughes, Manchester's assistant chief constable. The government is also
beginning to feel the heat from various parent and teacher organisations.
On March 20, 2001, a Home Office-sponsored report concluded that "British
children are not properly protected from paedophiles on the Internet".
The study - called "Chat Wise, Street Wise - Children and Internet
Chat Rooms" - urges a review of the law to tackle adults who target
children for abuse on the Internet. "There has been numerous examples
of adults targeting children, often through winning their confidence by
pretending to be teenagers in online chat rooms" confirms Philip
Waite, a father of two and a Director at schoolmaster.net., one of the
few monitored services online for students under eighteen. "Although
the changes in law does not call for a complete reform, it does recommend
Internet service providers set up "safe havens" within their
domains. It also calls for cyber moderators to monitor the Web, and implement
some form of "kitemark" to reassure parents that sites were
safe. This is a step in the right direction, but there is still much to
do before its a fail-safe structure."
More than 5m children under 16 in the UK are online, with 1.15m admitting
to using chat rooms. There are thought to be around 100,000 chat rooms
on the web. Mr. Waite emphasises that it will be a monumental task to
ensure so many chat areas will be safe, especially with new rooms cropping
up every day. "If there are 100,000 chat rooms today, there will
be 200,000 in six months," he adds. "Our chat rooms at schoolmaster.net
are monitored for content, and we know its kids talking to kids, because
our service screens members before they join through multiple verification
procedures, how are the authorities going to accomplish this feat with
public domain chat rooms?"
Terry Jones, an inspector of the Manchester force's obscene publications,
claims that those who traded in computer images or hide in chat rooms,
would find it increasingly difficult to hide from the police. "Our
work identifies those people abusing one of the most vulnerable groups
in our society," he adds. "We will continue to track down those
individuals who believe the Internet gives them the anonymity to continue
their trade in obscene pictures."
Mr. Waite believes that parents should be concerned, but also take an
active role in seeing what their children are doing online. It was his
concerns as a parent that spurned him to write a report on the subject,
titled The Internet and Children: Risks & Solutions. The report enables
parents to identify and assess risks, as well as understand how to cope
with chat rooms and other security issues. "Children and parents
must understand net etiquette, such as never giving out email or home
addresses, their phone number or details about which school they attend.
If a few rules are followed, and if parents have a safe and secure, members-only
system as their Internet community then the level of assurance
multiplies significantly," continued Mr. Waite.
Another online resource that is very useful is The Internet Watch Foundation
(www.iwf.org.uk). It is an independent organisation set-up to implement
the proposals jointly agreed by the government, the police, the two major
UK service provider trade associations, ISPA and LINX, on the subject
of Internet safety. Science and Technology Minister Ian Taylor welcomed
the initiative as "a major industry-led initiative to reassure the
public and business that the Internet can be a safe and secure place to
work, learn and play." Mr. Waite welcomes the proposal. "Although
schoolmaster.net offers a very concrete solution, we need the government
and other institutes to join us in educating parents and teachers on how
to use the Internet to maximise its massive educational potential. I am
convinced we will be able to eventually triumph over the few that ruin
and degrade the Internet experience for others." So, what are the
risks and how do we manage them?
Governments all over the world accept that the increased use of information
and communications technology (ICT) in education will lead to significant
increases in educational standards. Mr. Waite points out that "one
of the key aspects of ICT is the Internet, which provides teachers and
students with easy access to a wealth of cultural and educational information
and resources, which, for the first time can be presented in an engaging
manner." The nature of the Internet: the easy availability of information
and the ease of anonymity mean there are risks for students while online.
However, as The Scottish Executive outlined in its latest document, Personal
Safety on the Internet: "the Internet is no more than another medium
with associated risks, and general risk avoidance strategies are applicable,
these include identifying the risks, understanding the context, assessing
the level of risk, introducing strategies to maximise the gain, whilst
limiting the risk and sharing best practise."
What are the risks? Much research has been completed to identify the concerns
that parents and educators have about minors accessing the Internet and
the principle concerns fall into three categories: Content what
inappropriate material can be accessed; Contact who can have access
to the students through the use of the online communication, including
the instant communication tools such as chat and instant messaging, and:
Commercialisation who is directing advertising to students.
The easy creation and delivery of content on the Internet and the lack
of any national or international controls means that it is inevitable
that inappropriate material is easily available, including pornography,
violence and generally anti-social content. The key to addressing this
problem is twofold. Firstly, the use of software filtering products, but
it must always be remembered no filtering software is foolproof. Secondly,
children need to be presented with enough appropriate and interesting
content, at both school and home, so they do not feel that they need to
surf for other material.
The Internet provides many different forms of communication including
email, discussion forums, chat rooms and instant messaging. Mr. Waite
writes in his report that "these tools provide students and teachers
the means to communicate and collaborate virtually instantly, wherever
they are on the planet. Because of the anonymity of these messages it
is very easy for individuals to hide their real identities and this is
where the danger can occur. If a student is in a general chat room on
the Internet, there is no way for them to know if they are communicating
with a fourteen or forty year old."
Unlike inappropriate content where the use of filtering software in general
gives a high level of protection to students, the protection from contact
is substantially harder. For example many sites, including all portals,
now have chat rooms easily available where it is possible to just enter
as anybody and start chatting. As has been highlighted in the press and
in the Manchester case, this can lead to offline meetings and risks for
any aged individuals are substantial, particularly minors.
In a similar way to the availability of inappropriate content sites on
the Internet, advertising of unsuitable material for minors such as gambling
and pornography is also widely available on the Internet. Mr. Waite adds
"however, commercialisation goes beyond just advertising, which it
could be argued students are already subjected to offline. In the future
as more students buy online, companies gather information about their
buying habits and then will proactively target similar products to them
at a later date.
Mr. Waite wraps up by saying "in addition to providing as secure
an environment as possible, both at school and home it is essential that
from an early age students are educated on the risks involved of going
online and taught how to identify and handle them. This is common practise
for other risks that children face while they are growing up, whether
it is crossing the road, not talking to strangers or locking doors. To
assist in this, Childnet International have created two mnemonics to help
students remember the dangers of being online SMART and CHAT."
The mnemonics stand for:
S Keep your personal details Secret. Never give away your name, address
M Never Meet someone you have contacted in cyberspace unless accompanied
by an adult
A Dont Accept emails, open attachments from people or organisations
you dont know or trust, they may contain viruses
R Remember that someone online may not be who they say they are.
T Tell your parent or teacher if something makes you feel uncomfortable
C Careful people online may not be who they say they are
H Hang on to your personal information never give out your personal
A Arranging to meet is dangerous never meet someone you met online,
offline unless accompanied
T Tell your friends or an adult if you come across something that makes
you fell uncomfortable
In conclusion, parents and educators must understand there are risks involved
when providing access to the Internet to students and therefore it is
necessary to provide a secure online environment for all students. Ultimately,
as it states in the DfEE Superhighway Safety Information Pack "Whilst
educators and parents need to exercise caution in the Internet access
they allow students, they should not be deterred from using it. Its educational
benefits outweigh any possible dangers."
Manou Marzban is
the Content and Channel Director at BiblioTech, and can be emailed at
firstname.lastname@example.org, he is very keen on any feedback on the subject
of Internet security from readers.
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