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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
'Ban teens from chatrooms'
Children should be kept out of chat rooms, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Girl on computer
Do you know who your child is talking to on the net?
It was, it seems, the internet's fault. Young and foolish, 12-year old Shevaun Pennington found a friend online and decided that what he had to offer was more exciting than the boys in school.

She joins a long line of other children who have met people in chat rooms or over e-mail and been persuaded to turn an online friendship into a real-world one, with consequences that will terrify any parent.

It is traditional for those of us who have been online for many years to leap to the net's defence at times like this, arguing that parental ignorance is to blame and that anyway the net brings benefits which far outweigh any risks it may pose to children.

I don't propose to do this.

Shevaun's disappearance was the net's fault and we have to accept this.

She would not have had any contact with her 31-year old ex-Marine if it had not been for the easy access to e-mail and chat that today's children seem to demand as a right, and we should not pretend otherwise or blame inadequate supervision.

New understanding

Certainly, parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online, but none of us is perfect and always alert to danger.

We can restrict their access, or install safety software, but our kids also need space to grow up, privacy from even their parents, and a sense that they are trusted.

Bill Thompson
The experiences of Shevaun and other children like her have only confirmed my view that kids do not need to use chatrooms to talk to strangers
Bill Thompson

Monitoring every e-mail, sitting in on every chat and checking web access logs is not the way, certainly for the over-10s.

While there are significant benefits to being online and to using the resources available on the net, the balance between these benefits and the dangers needs to be better understood, and a new understanding is required.

Part of the problem is that we tend to treat the net as if it is one thing, but of course it is many. The web, e-mail and chat are vastly different tools, used in vastly different ways, and presenting different risks and benefits.

After all, we use radio waves to transmit BBC1 and Radio 4, for mobile phones and walkie-talkies and even for x-rays, and we do not expect one set of rules to apply to them all. So we should not automatically let problems with chat and e-mail change the way we let children use the web.

The major problem is chat, and as far back as February I argued that the prevalence of predatory adult males in online chat rooms had been demonstrated so clearly that it was time to exclude kids from chat rooms where adults might be present.

The experiences of Shevaun and other children like her have only confirmed my view that kids do not need to use chat rooms to talk to strangers.

Political issue

In the last couple of months my 12-year-old daughter has started chatting to her friends online, and she enjoys the experience greatly. One feature which appeals to her greatly is that she can have a private conversation with her school mates even if I'm sitting in the same room, something that she can't do on her phone.

However we have a deal. She has let me set up her chat service so that only people on her contact list can see she is online or send her messages, and I get to look through her contact list to check that they are all friends I know.

CHAT ROOMS AND CHILDREN
Girls on a computer
One in five children aged nine to 16 regularly use chatrooms
More than half have engaged in sex chat
A quarter have received requests to meet face-to-face
One in 10 had met face-to-face
Source: Cyberspace Research Centre

And she doesn't go to public chat rooms.

This is a political, not a technical issue. Whatever age verification schemes we might come up with, a determined adult will find a way around them - or just find a way to steal a child's online identity and strike up conversation in an apparently trustworthy space.

In many ways this would be worse than the present situation, where we can at least ask kids to be vigilant about everyone they meet online.

The only answer is to keep kids out of these spaces - to make them adult-only and require age verification by those hosting them.

If that is inconvenient, then let it be. This is too important. Doing this would at least reduce the number of kids exposed to the danger, and it would not deprive of them of any useful or valuable experience.

Looking after our kids means setting limits on their behaviour to keep them safe. We should not let the net advocates try to persuade us to expose our children to the dangers of public chat rooms.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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