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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 20:28 GMT 21:28 UK
Child safety fears over website
Concerns have been raised about the Bebo website
Concerns have been raised in Northern Ireland about the content of an internet website aimed at young people.

Michael McClean, the principal of Aquinas Diocesan Grammar in Belfast has written to parents about child safety concerns he has about the website Bebo.

He said girl students as young as 11 have photographs and personal details on Bebo and said the site could be used to bully or harass other young people.

Bebo said in a statement that it took privacy and safety "very seriously".

'Not private'

Mr McClean said that while the majority of students who used the site appeared to do so for legitimate uses, many young people seemed to believe it was private, when in fact, it was not.

"Nothing could be further from the truth; everybody and anybody can access individual pupil profiles, their conversations, their comments, their video clips etc," Mr McClean said in his letter.

He told parents that, as a result, the school was considering including "bringing the school's name into disrepute" and "internet harassment of other pupils" in the school's Code of Good Behaviour.

Bebo is a community website which gives young people their own webspace.

We believe that while we are doing what we can to keep the internet safe, it is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to do their part
Bebo statement
BBC Newsline reporter Chris Buckler said it had been set up by a company in San Francisco and was specifically aimed at schools.

He was able to access schools throughout Northern Ireland, whilst giving a false identity.

"We found reasons to be concerned," he said.

He said photographs of young people could be found which were inappropriate and may have been taken without their knowledge.

The concern lay in the amount of detail which pupils gave about themselves, he said. He has tried to contact the site managers, but, so far, has been unsuccessful.

'Difficulties'

John Carr, from children's charity, NCH, who is an expert in internet abuse and bullying said Bebo has about 25 million members worldwide, with an estimated four million within the United Kingdom.

"From a practical point of view, there are difficulties about how you would monitor or check on stuff that has been posted. This does not absolve them of responsibility," he said.

"A lot of problems on the internet are linked to the fact there is no practical way of checking people's ages or identities."

Mr Carr said that, in England, it had been agreed that, irrespective of where something happens, if it affects the quality of life within the school, then the school has a responsibility to act on it.

Martin Bowen, principal of St Peter's High School in Londonderry said what concerned him was young people's complacency about the website.

"They do not realise how easy it is for other people to get on there and provide false details, they think it is safe and it is not safe," he said.

Frank Bunting of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation said the internet left teachers feeling very vulnerable.

"The difficulty for teachers is that they are very vulnerable. There has been a range of websites where you can have statements being made with no degree of responsibility.

"Comments are being made about people's personal and professional lives which are very damning," he said.

'Safety tips'

In a statement, Bebo said they took "privacy and safety matters with the utmost of urgency and seriousness".

The company said "safety tips for Beboers and parents" were posted prominently on the homepage and on every page within the site.

They said they constantly worked with internet organisations to improve safety practices.

"We believe that while we are doing what we can to keep the internet safe, it is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to do their part," the company added.

"Just like you don't send your children off to the school bus without teaching them to look both ways and not to talk to strangers, there is similar safety advice that parents and educators need to be sharing with their children/students about internet safety."




SEE ALSO:
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24 May 06 |  Technology
Teenage life online
20 Mar 06 |  Breakfast
MySpace tackles teen safety fears
11 Apr 06 |  Technology


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