I’ve blogged several times before about various aspects of online safety, in particular Bebo and Myspace including the irony of the fact that on the one hand we’ve had regular concerned parents asking us not to put pictures of their children on the Church website, and yet the ease with which we could find the profiles of a number of the members of the youth group.
The Panorama tonight showed exactly why I was concerned at some of the profiles – if I could find them, who else could?
I have to say, at points in the programme, my blood ran cold. It started off with two girls who when they were 14 accepted someone who claimed to be a 26 year old woman onto their friend list. It wasn’t, in actual fact it was a 55 year old predatory pedophile, who subsequently used information on their pages to turn up when they were on a school trip. Thankfully the two girls involved, despite being frightened managed to get a picture of the man leading to his subsequent arrest.
But it went on. The programme set up a honey pot – a perfectly innocuous profile of a 14 year old girl, which pretty quickly attracted attention. When it got onto the 16 year old who was essentially selling himself over his webcam the programme was really getting disturbing. Another disturbing aspect was the survey statistics comparing what the children were doing, with what the parents thought their children were doing.
I suspect I’m in somewhat of a minority in that having been around online for a while, I’m well aware of the ease with which people can hide their true identity online – indeed it was at University that I first came across someone who was totally different in real life when two people I knew arranged to meet a girl they’d been chatting to online, only to discover that they weren’t who they said they were – in fact it wasn’t even a girl… Having spent time on IRC when that was a popular online haunt I’ve got a catalogue of internet stories of a similar ilk.
Interestingly chatting about the programme today with a long time friend who was also on IRC around the same time, but whose now husband is relatively new to the internet, it seems that we have a very different attitude to people online. Both of us, although we have Windows Messenger, have the security settings turned fully on – i.e. the only people who can message us are people already on our list. The few people we’ve added recently have been people we’ve met in real life, rather than random online friends. Compare this to my friends husband, who has been randomly chatting to people on Windows Messenger – â€œhow do you know who they are?â€? she asked – â€œbecause I’ve seen a picture.â€? came the reply.
A little story for you. Back on IRC I remember one of the regulars having a major crisis as they had built an online relationship with someone in the US, indeed they’d got as far as arranging to meet. The problem was that this person was very insecure about how they looked, so right back at the beginning of the relationship had sent a picture of their cousin, who they thought was much better looking. As a result, when a meeting in real life was a possibility, she then had told her friend that she had a phoney picture, and to send a real one – at which point he had called the whole thing off. It is really, really easy to use a phoney picture to disguise your identity, it is really, really easy to pretend to be something or someone you are not online. As with the IRC story, it could be that two lonely people got hurt, but equally it can be someone pretending to be what they are not. Parents warn their children of stranger danger in the real world, but it is doubly important in the online world. Just because they say they are someone and show you a picture, doesn’t mean that they are who they say they are.
The programme talks to CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is a UK wide specialist police unit who also host the Think U Know site which includes resources and advice aimed at various age groups, and also information for parents, and teachers/youth leaders that could be used to talk about internet safety in a youth group situation.