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  Internet safety hotseat!
Updated 20 July 2003, 12.39
Send us your internet safety questions?
With all the talk about chatroom safety we brought in some net safety experts to offer help and advice.

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Lizo: The events of the last few days with the 12-year-old Shevaun Pennington who ran off with a marine from the United States called Toby Studabaker have been on everbody's minds.

They originally met in a chatroom more than a year ago and that's raised all sorts of questions about chatrooms across the UK and across the world.

We've got Rachel Bardill who is a moderator from CBBC Online. And we've also got John Carr who's an expert on chatrooms and the internet from the National Children's Home.

Now our very first question is from Sian and from lots of other children.

Sian, 12, Bristol
I'm worried about using chatrooms - should I be?

John: Well if Sian or anybody else is worried about anything to do with the internet or chatrooms in particular they should talk to their mum and dad about it or talk to their teacher - somebody they know and trust - and try and iron it out with them. But in general I'd say - "no". I mean chatrooms can be a lot of fun, kids love them.

The crucial thing is to know what you might meet, the kind of people who might be in there and you've got to always remember that they don't necessarily always turn out to be who they say they are - somebody might be playing a game with them, trying to fool them, trying to trick them.

If you remember that and don't let your guard down chatrooms can be a lot of fun.

Lizo: Now of course with this case that's going on with at the moment with the ex- US marine Toby Studabaker being accused of abducting 12-year-old Shevaun after they met in a chatroom a year ago, this has raised all sorts of issues, as we say, should we have been talking about this earlier before this case has really thrown the spotlight on it?

John: Absolutely, sadly there have been too many cases like this already. This one's just got a spectacular amount of publicity but there have been about 25 or so similar cases here in the UK over the past two or three years.

So if any good is going to come out of this case at all it is raising people's awareness of the dangers and risks. Some very strange people can go on the internet, the internet is such a big open system anybody can get in there, talk to anybody they like, say anything they like.

Lizo: Now Rachel you're in charge of the CBBC message board, including of course the Newsround ones, what is the difference between a message board and a chatroom?

Rachel: Well basically with a chatroom it's an instant chat where you can talk in real time, so it's almost like having a conversation on the telephone. But with message boards it's almost like a pin board in a corridor at school - you sort of post your messages on there and someone can post a message a bit later on.

What CBBC does is it reads each and every message that it gets in before it goes on to the internet just to make sure that the safety rules are observed and that people are actually treating issues with respect and they're not putting themselves in any danger.

Kim, 14, Liverpool
Chatrooms sound really cool but I'm scared of people lying to me or saying nasty things, do you have any advice?

Rachel: Well if you ever find yourself in a position where you are troubled by something, talk to somebody - talk to a trusted adult, talk to a parent or teacher, someone you feel you can trust.

If you're in a moderated area I would alert the moderator to the problem so they can sort the problem out there and then.

Lizo: Are all chatrooms moderated or are some unmoderated - how does that all work John?

John: Well no the great majority of chatrooms are not moderated at all.

A moderated chatroom basically has got somebody, usually a person, in there looking over what's being said and how the conversation's going. So that if somebody starts behaving badly - using excessive amounts of bad language or talking about stuff they shouldn't be with kids - they can step in and kick the person out.

Some other chatrooms however don't have a person there at all, they still call it moderated but what they have instead is a piece of software that's just looking for particular words - swear words, stuff like that.

So moderation is a good idea in children's chatrooms but there is no agreed definition of what moderation means at the moment, we're trying to work one out.

Kamiah, 9, Essex
How do I know if I'm in a chatroom if there's an adult who wants to ┐ well intrude?

John: Normally in chatroom along the right hand side of the screen there'll be the names of everybody who's in there, they won't all necessarily be taking part in the chat but if they're logged into the chatroom usually their names will be visible.

And what you can do in most cases is click on them and you'll see the person's profile and it will give you some information about their age, where they come from, that kind of thing.

Now of course the problem with that is the information may not be accurate because the person who's put it up there might have been lying to fool people, some guys - 27, 28 year old guys, 40-year-old guys - can say they're 12 or 13, there's no way of checking on it at the moment.

Twelve or 13-year-olds can say they're 19, again there's no way of checking. So the answer really, I'm afraid, is you can't ever take anything as gospel if you're in a chatroom.

Lizo: That's one of the difficulties isn't it, that one of the attractions of the internet and chatrooms is that you can be whoever you like and that's half the fun and attraction isn't it for some people?

Rachel: Absolutely and we do find that quite a lot of people do go into these chatrooms and they do want to be somebody else, they do want to be older or different - different interests and things like that.

So it's difficult because that is one of the attractions. But then that's why you do have to be very careful and you do have to observe all of the safety rules to make sure that you are safe.

Lizo: I suppose the only time that becomes a problem when somebody has actually sinister intent. Sometimes, as I say, half the fun is pretending to be somebody else but it's when there's sinister intent that we should get really worried.

John: There's nothing wrong with playing games and pretending to be somebody you're not. The problem is when you cross over a line and you end up harming somebody or deceiving them.

Playing games - I pretended to be Prince Charles in the school play once - kids do this all the time, nothing wrong with it at all, if you cross the line - and everybody knows where that line is, in their own hearts, they know where that line is, you cross that line, hurt somebody's feelings, make them feel bad in some way then that's wrong.

Sasha, Swansea
I just want to tell kids, never give your address or telephone number out, even if it's your mobile, don't give e-mail address out and if anything happens in a chatroom just tell the manager of the chatroom or parents and just log off.

Lizo: Because you're quite an expert on the internet, aren't you, you run your own website site don't you.

Sasha: Yeah.

Lizo: I mean how's that been, have you encountered any problems? Sasha: Not so far but I have once but I sent the person out of the chatroom.

Lizo: So you think the key is just being responsible and making sure that what's happening in your chatroom is only good stuff? Sasha: Yeah.

Lizo: Okay, that's brilliant, thank you very much for your comments there Sasha, good points weren't they.

Rachel: Yeah absolutely and if you do make sure that not only yourself but you're making sure that other people within the chatroom are okay because this is all a learning process and not everybody will know about the safety rules that you've got to observe.

So having a look round and making sure other people within your community, which is what it is, are actually safe.

Amanda, 16, Dublin
I don't feel safe in chatrooms, you don't feel safe because you don't know who you're talking to and for all we know they're lying about everything they're saying.

Vanessa, Milton Keynes
I think chatrooms should be banned because you never know if someone is telling the truth or not. My parents won't let me on them anyway and I would never dream of meeting up with anyone, people are always telling children never to meet up and I think it's about time the government stepped in.

Lizo: Do you think that's overreacting to a problem or do you think it's the only way to really truly control chatrooms John?

John: Well banning them - there's certainly a lot more talk about banning them after the publicity over the last few days. I'm not sure closing down all chatrooms would work anyway.

Let's not forget the internet is a global mechanism, we don't know what chatrooms Shevaun met this guy in, in the first place, it could have been an American one, it could have been Canadian, it could have been Australian, so even if we close down chatrooms here in the UK as long as the internet's still going kids are going to be able to get on to chatrooms in other countries.

Lizo: So it's a case of accepting that they're there and then saying what safeguard do we need to make sure that people are as safe as they possibly can be.

Rachel: Absolutely and instead of putting effort into trying to ban all chatrooms on the internet which would be impossible, it's about educating each other and ourselves and going to schools and making sure that everybody knows about the dangers. So transferring the efforts from a complete ban to more safety information.

Rachel, 11, Croydon
I think chatrooms are good fun and a bit of a laugh, you can joke about who you are, have great fun talking to someone you don't know, as long as you follow the rules and don't try to meet up with anyone you're not going to get into any trouble.

If certain people are silly enough to give out their details then they shouldn't be allowed on. Not the whole of the UK should ban chatrooms because of all that.

Lizo: It's a good point isn't it, I mean the difficulties, as you say, stepping over that line. Do people truly know where that line should be if they're children and is it really easy to discriminate, it's great to have all these rules saying don't do that, do this but actually people who have sinister intent on the internet they can grey the areas a bit can't they - is that the danger?

Rachel: Yeah absolutely and people do try and get your trust and try and develop a relationship over a long period of time.

But then as long as you don't actually meet these people, you don't give out any kind of personal information and if you're feeling at all uncomfortable then you shouldn't be in too much danger and it's always about having a dialogue with an adult and talking to them about what kind of experiences you're having online as well.

Lizo: Do people need to be inherently suspicious because that's the danger - so I know I shouldn't meet anyone off the internet and I shouldn't give my number but I've been talking for ages and they're actually really nice, they've really helped me with my problems - I've been bullied at school and my parents are divorcing - actually they've really been a good friend to me, I trust them, they've earned my trust.

John: And when the guy in the end says - hey, so why don't we meet? It's like your old friend or your lover. I mean some of these kids who go in there they end up thinking that these guys are their boyfriends and they want to marry them and they want to meet them and all that kind of stuff.

So it can be very tricky and that is exactly why these older guys do go in there looking for kids who are perhaps a little bit innocent, a little bit na´ve, not so worldly wise and why should they be, 'cos they're kids after all.

And just on this point about meeting. There was a survey done by the University of Central Lancashire, I was on the steering group of it, and we found that 1 in 10 of the kids in our survey who had been in a chatroom arranged to meet somebody.

So if you're going to do it, if you are going to meet somebody, the key thing is take an adult with you, take your mum and dad or a trusted adult friend, and always make sure that the meeting is in a public place because until you actually get there on that first occasion you can never be really certain who or what you're going to be meeting, so don't go alone, take somebody with you.

Lizo: So the key thing is to really be inherently suspicious because you don't know at the end of the day who you've been talking to, however long it's been going on for. We've got an interesting e-mail from Mark.

Mark, Leicester
How can I explain to my mum and dad that not all chatrooms are bad? They won't let me go on at all.

John: Take your mum and dad, sit them down next to you, next time you go online, and show them what goes on. You must be able to find at least one chatroom that your mum and dad won't faint at.

Holly, 16: Well I think it's okay to go on chatrooms because if there's someone chatting to you that is making suggestions to ask to meet you then you can just block them or ignore them or leave the chatroom.

As long as you don't agree to meet people you'll stay safe. Never give out your personal details like your address or phone number.

I was in a chatroom once and a 38-year-old guy started to talk to me and because he read the whole of my profile he knew everything about me, like he asked how my mum's new hairdresser's was and how my horses were, it sort of freaked me out but I stopped him and at the end of the day it's up to the people that are chatting if they want to meet them not the chatroom.

Lizo: Okay so you think the key is to actually make sure people know exactly how to be safe there and then trust people to follow those rules?

Holly: Yes.

Lizo: That's brilliant, thank you very much for those comments Holly. What did you think of that?

John: She's well sussed.

Rachel: It was refreshing to hear her.

Lizo: Let's move on to other things because there's all sorts of ways people communicate on the internet, we've talked a bit about message boards, about chatrooms, what is instant messaging?

John: This messaging is what my kids use far more than chatrooms I have to say. You construct your own buddy list, so you've got all your mates, you know their names, you know their e-mail addresses and you put them on a little screen on your computer and whenever they log on to their machine you get a little ping on your screen to say Fred's just come online or Simone's just come online and you can then talk directly to them.

And in a way they're much safer than ordinary chatrooms because the only people on your buddy list will be your buddies, not strangers, which is what you would get in a chatroom.

Lizo: Isn't there always a danger that it's going to be people that they've met in chatrooms who say hey let's exchange e-mails and we'll put each other on buddy lists and somebody's actually getting closer and closer to you like that?

Rachel: Yeah absolutely but there is always the facility to sort of exclude people from a buddy list if they start to become worrying and they're suggesting things.

So there are safety measures that can be in place. But again it means what your personal details include, sort of instant messaging and your e-mail address, so giving out that information again should be for your friends, for your buddies, and less so in chatrooms.

John: You have to agree to accept somebody on to your buddy list in the first place and they have to agree that you can put them on there as well.

So you should really, really only ever agree to people going on your buddy list who you already know and you know their e-mail address and certainly nobody from a chatroom who don't already know should go on your buddy list.

Lizo: Because I suppose it's like a private unmoderated chatroom, once you've got them there there's nobody else looking over your shoulder making sure it's okay, it's just you and them.

Now we've got some more questions coming in:

Jade, 11, USA
What do I do if someone won't leave me alone in a chatroom or keeps asking for a private chat?

John: Block them. Private chat - I'm very glad somebody's raised that because that's always the way these things start going wrong.

A guy will come up to you, click on your name and they call it whispering or private chat, it depends on which company you're using and they'll ask you to go off to a one to one, because when you're in a chatroom it's a fairly public place, there's lots of other people watching.

Why does the guy want you to go off into a private chatroom? To talk about stuff he doesn't want anybody else to see or hear. So if somebody asks for a private chat say no, unless you already know them or you're very, very confident about who they are.

Lizo: Yeah that point's been made by lots and lots of people.

Zara, 12, Manchester
Someone keeps trying to talk to me but I don't want to talk to them, what should I do?

Graham, 14, London
Can I stop people chatting to me in an open chatroom?

Rachel: You can ignore them. Again if it's got some kind of moderation then you can alert people to the situation. But generally you just have to ignore them.

John: A public chatroom is a public place and it's like being out on the street or in the park, you can't control who's going to be in there. You can block them, you can stop them talking to you but you can't stop them being there.

Lizo: Can you tell us a bit about disclaimers John?

John: Yeah well most companies they will insist on your giving them some details about yourself before they'll let you go into the chatroom or before they'll give you an e-mail address.

And they always say we'll use this information in such and such a way or such and such a way and they'll put a disclaimer in there about any legal liability and so on.

Because you get into a difficult area here because on the one hand you're saying to kids don't give out personal details of any kind when you go on the internet, on the other hand you can't get to the service in the first place unless you give out some personal details.

So the key thing is to understand the difference between the sign up procedure, where these disclaimers will be that will end up in your profile, and when you're actually in the chatroom, it's when you're in the chatroom that you don't give out the stuff. And check what of that information is going to appear in your profile as well.

Lauren, 10 Cardiff
Is it ever okay to meet people in real life who you meet on the internet?

Gem, 12, Liverpool
I want to meet somebody I've met online is it safe as long as I take a friend?

Rachel: Well it does happen, like John was saying, 1 in 10 people it does happen. We would advise no but if you are going to go and meet someone offline take an adult with you, take someone you trust with you and meet in a public place.

John: And always make sure everybody knows that you're going to do it so everybody's clear what's happening.

Luke, 10, Southampton
All the stories about chatrooms in the newspapers have scared me, how do I know which ones are safe to use?

Rachel: It's difficult because there's so many out there, it's really difficult to know which is safe and which isn't. A chatroom which has got some kind of moderation is obviously preferable because it's that kind of a safety net where you will have people monitoring your conversations.

But then you can never be sure if they are moderated in some instances. So it's a case of taking the responsibility yourself as well.

If there are safety messages around the chatroom and stranger danger messages then you tend to find that they are aware of the safety problems.

Lizo: I suppose the safest chatrooms are the ones where you yourself go in and know you're going to act in a very safe manner, whatever else is going on around you.

John: You are your best protector in all circumstances. Having said that there are a couple of chat areas that are specifically designed for children - I don't want to mention any company names but they're there, you can find them if you go through Yahooligans! The kid's search engine.

The BBC does some great chat stuff for kids from time to time. And certainly the bigger chat companies now do provide - it won't be there all the time but they will provide some moderated chat for kids sometimes but it won't be there all the time.

Lizo: And one final thought, me personally, I'm in a bit of a strange position because I can't really go into chatrooms or anything of any kind because if I say I'm Lizo, it's such an unusual name, people go oh no you're not, you must be lying.

Which I suppose is good because people are being very sceptical but people never believe I'm who I say I am.

Anyway what final points would you like to sum up from this, how people should be acting in chatrooms with everything that's been happening over the last few days in the media and papers, John?

John: The internet's still a great place, kids love it, as long as you keep your head screwed on and you know what you're doing you'll be okay.

Rachel: Yeah absolutely, I mean the internet is such a wonderful place and you can use it to its full potential as long as you are safe.

Lizo: We have a special internet safety area on the Newsround website so please go and have a look at that if you've got any questions whatsoever.

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