Microsoft have announced it is closing down all free, unmoderated chatrooms on its network of sites. But what are chatrooms and how can children find safe places to talk to friends online?
What is a chatroom?
A chatroom is an area on the internet where people can talk to others and make online friends. Websites or big internet service providers usually have a number of chatrooms which are organised around interests and hobbies.
There are hundreds of thousands of chatrooms on the internet.
Users usually have to register to enter a chatroom, which means they have to provide an e-mail address, and they choose a username and password to log into the chat areas.
Once registered, users "talk" to each other by typing in a text box and they can see the conversation in a scrolling window.
Chatrooms are "real-time chat" which means lots of people can type what they want to say and it will appear in the chat window immediately.
There are many chatrooms that do not require registration however, and only ask people to choose a nickname.
How risky are they for children?
No chatrooms are risk-free.
They are a great way for children to meet and talk to other children all over the world, but they should always be very careful.
While some chatrooms are moderated, there are thousands which are not. This means there is no responsible adult checking the content of the messages which appear, which may be inappropriate.
Chatrooms are relatively easy to create and many children do not know who runs them or where they are coming from. Anyone can set up a chatroom, in any country and for any reason.
"Safer" chatrooms are those which clearly state they have responsible, properly trained adults monitoring and moderating what goes on in them.
Many are concerned that children are being targeted by potential abusers who try to make friends with children in order to get them to reveal personal information about themselves, such as where they live.
They can spend months "grooming" children and gaining their trust.
There have been high-profile cases of children arranging to meet up with people they have met in chatrooms who they assume are the same age as them.
The UK Government is currently drawing up legislation making it an offence to "groom" children on the internet and arrange to meet them like this.
Are some safer than others?
There are hundreds of thousands of chatrooms on the net, and they are easy to find. Again, moderated chatrooms are "safer" than unmoderated ones.
There are no hard and fast rules for how chatrooms are run, although there are general guidelines about how to operate a chatroom responsibly.
The UK Government has a voluntary code of practice for chatroom operators which outlines the safety features they should be offering to users.
But it is up to chatroom operators to implement them.
Most UK-based chatrooms should now provide safety tools in several different areas. Users should use the ones which follow safety guidelines.
- Clear and prominent information about what kind of chatroom users are entering.
- Clear and prominent safety advice and links to safety guides
- Safety tools like ignore buttons, advice on handling abusive messages and abusive language filters
- Moderation, where a trained, responsible adult vets and supervises behaviour and the provision if alert and panic buttons
- Registration process which should require minimal personal information gathering.
Are there other ways for children to communicate online, and are these any safer?
There are other ways children can chat online, and some are "safer" than others.
The three main alternative ways to chat online are:
Instant messaging (IM) is becoming extremely popular with chatters. There are various IM programs which users usually have to install on their computers.
- Instant messaging (IM)
- Message boards or groups
- Internet Relay Chat (IRC)
It allows chatters more control over who they chat to because users have to ask permission to be a "buddy" and they can block unwanted messages.
Users usually need to know the user's e-mail address to make a request, which means most children only have "buddies" who they know outside the internet.
Message boards do not involve "chat" but users post messages which can be checked by a moderator before they are put online or after they are posted.
The best message boards to use are those which clearly state any inappropriate messages or those containing personal information will be removed.
IRC is not commonly used by children but is a real-time chat programme which users download.
What can I do to safeguard my children online?
Instead of trying to stop them using the internet, talk to children about what they are doing online. Encourage them to always tell a parent, teacher or guardian when they are surfing the net.
Experts recommend that a computer used by children should be kept downstairs and in sight of parents and guardians.
Encourage them to talk about what they are doing, talk about who their online friends are and to ask for help with anything they find troubling.
Help them to find chat areas which have proper moderation and safety tools.
Above all, ensure they know never to pass on personal information like e-mail addresses to people they do not know in the real world.
Where can I find out more about best practice?
Internet service providers who give you your net access should provide safe surfing advice.
There are also children's charities which offer advice on how to make sure children can chat safely, like NCH's NetSmart site, ChildNet as well as BBCi's ChatGuide.