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Cybersafe in Cyberspace

2nd February 2007

02022007_girl&laptop1.jpgSocial networking groups on the internet have now become hugely popular, particularly amongst teenagers and people in their early twenties. The social networks sites Bebo and MySpace were the two most searched for terms of 2006 using Google’s search engine. 

These are sites allowing users to create an online profile, including any information about themselves and photos that a user chooses to disclose.  MySpace’s site regulations do not allow children under the age of 13 to set up an account and it only shows partial profiles (gender, age and city) of 14 and 15 year olds unless the viewer is already on their list of friends.  However, crucially none of these sites do any age or ID checks so someone claiming to be 16 years old could just as easily be 10 or 65. 

Following several cases where adult men had used MySpace to meet under aged girls, new restrictions were put in place making it ‘more difficult’ for older users to befriend younger members previously unknown to them.  The new ‘safeguard’ meant that users of 18 and above – in reality meaning users who are admitting to be 18 and above – would no longer be able to request to be added to a 14 or 15 year-old’s group of friend unless they already knew the teenager’s email address or full name.  Now surely, that’s reassuring isn’t it?  Due to this new ‘restriction’ an older person with bad intentions would actually have to lie about his/her age and say that he/she was under the age of 18.  As I’m sure you agree – this has clearly made it so much more difficult for potential sex offenders to groom children for sexual abuse.  Yeah – right!       

Of course it would be good if the world was such a wonderful place but knowing what we do about online communities, there is absolutely no justification for relying on people’s honesty in their communication and interaction.

This is a difficult area – and yes, the world has never been a safe place anyway.  It is quite worrying though when the UK organisation Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) said in July 2006 that one in 12 children met up with someone first encountered online.

I don’t have the solution for the wide range of online communities but I think that within healthcare we should show clear commitment to protecting vulnerable children.  On the website we have developed for teenagers who have a parent with cancer (http://www.riprap.org.uk/) we do have a forum where teenagers can share experiences and support each other but we screen every message before we put it on the site to ensure anonymity for each user and prevent anyone from being able to get in touch on a one to one basis. 

We do of course recognise that we are preventing teenagers from getting in touch with each other at a private level, and unfortunately we are preventing what surely could have become wonderful supportive friendships at a time when they really could do with meeting someone in the same situation.  On the other hand, we are also preventing vulnerable teenagers from being contacted by people pretending to be their friend but with the intention of abusing the young person’s vulnerability and trust.  So in balance – we think the gain is bigger than the loss and we feel reassured knowing that at least our online community is not facilitating abuse of young people in cyberspace.

 

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