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Is the Internet Safe?
Manou Marzban Content & 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, 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 it’s 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 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 ( 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 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 passwords
M Never Meet someone you have contacted in cyberspace unless accompanied by an adult
A Don’t Accept emails, open attachments from people or organisations you don’t 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 or worried
C Careful – people online may not be who they say they are
H Hang on to your personal information – never give out your personal details
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, he is very keen on any feedback on the subject of Internet security from readers.

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