Sunday, 24 April 2011

Child Protection – Wise Up

“Exposed” – a video by CEOP, deals with the subjects of sexting and cyberbullying, issues that teenagers commonly face.

While there are dangers on the internet threatening our children we need to remember that with a bit of common sense, knowledge and a few parental control techniques we can protect our children and allow them to benefit from the vast advantages the internet offers. The worst thing a parent can do is simply take away all the technology. If a child fears a parent will do this, they will hide their involvement from their parent including bullying and worse. Likewise a parent cannot simply have the attitude, “My child knows more than me I’ll leave it to them – they’re sensible.” We must remember God has given us the responsibility to raise our children and raise them properly. “Father’s do not irritate and provoke your children to anger (do not exasperate them to resentment) but rear them tenderly in the training and discipline and counsel and admonition of the Lord” Ephesians 6:4.

A recent European survey* showed a lack of awareness that many parents had about the risks children face online. 40% of parents were unaware of their children’s exposure to sexual images, 56% did not know that their child had been cyberbullied. 52% were unaware that their child had received sexual messages and 61% had no knowledge of offline meetings their children had with online contacts.

Internet Safety is something we take very seriously at St Paul’s. This is why I attended the Internet Safety Conference ** organised by the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS). The conference was excellent, and included speakers from Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), Childnet International, Beat Bullying, and the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire. The key message was “wise up”. Young people, and adults, need educating in the online risks and dangers, and there are plenty of organisations out there to help. The net isn’t a ‘big bad wolf’, it’s a tool, which may be used for good or bad.

So what are the risks?

Young people today are digital natives. They were born with the internet, and embrace it. 93% of 9-16 year olds in Europe go online at least weekly*. CEOP reported that current concerning online trends amongst young people in the UK are:-

  • Webcams and images – used to take indecent photos and videos of themselves to pass on to friends for fun. These images often find their way to paedophiles websites
  • Omegie  – a website used for anonymous online chat and frequented by paedophiles
  • Chat Roulette – random video chat with strangers
  • Grooming - builds up trust between a young person and an offender, and then makes the young person feel vulnerable, in order to exploit them. Dr Zoe Hilton from CEOP advised they receive 420 reports a month from children in the UK, 50-100 of these relate to grooming.

Other risks to be aware of is Fraping, or Facebook raping. This is the concept of someone hijacking your facebook account, and updating your details, essentially taking it over. This happens, for example, if you use a public site, and do not log out of it before you leave.

Ideological extremism is an issue. Dr Jo Bryce,  Director of the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire, highlighted as a factor to watch out for. Namely discrimination and prejudice (in parents, which is then passed on to children), and quoting extreme religious texts. Both these could be factors in online risk. Religious belief in general may also be used to bully children, if they express this belief online.

Young people aren’t just exposed to online risk via adults. Child-to-child abuse also takes place. For example cyberbullying, misuse of personal data and sexting and hate sites, also all occur between children. Hate sites are websites created to insight hatred against a specific target. Often the website address bears the name of the target, for example (not a real site). The website is then publicised (in school, via text messaging or email).

The internet has moved on from web pages conveying useful information, to fully interactive social networks. You can chat with friends, or complete strangers, through Facebook and other social networks, or play collaborative online games, connected to anyone, anywhere in the world. But it’s not just about the web, it’s about phones too. A significant proportion of young people have mobile phones of their own. Text messages are a popular way to communicate between friends, and an opportunity for sexting or bullying. Sexting occurs because young people want to look sexy and attractive, and don’t understand the consequences of their actions. They need to be educated. Cyberbulling is now 24x7, and no longer confined to the playground. Bullies believe their actions to be anonymous, and go for the mass audience to attract most attention. This video from Childnet depicts a typical scenario showing what bullying feels like, and how it hurts and embarrasses a young person. Chloe Morton from CyberMentors outlined the key reasons for cyberbulling as; fun, status, reputation, retaliation, power and peer pressure/acceptance. Children with disabilities, or on free school meals, are more likely to be targets. Dr Bryce identified the following factors effecting vulnerable groups:-

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Low self-esteem
  • Chaotic family life
  • Special educational needs
  • Emotional or behavioural issues

If you watched the Exposed video (above) on sexting and cyberbulling and the Childnet video on cyberbulling, and found them shocking, then do something about it. Find out about online safety – get educated. Speak to a young person and help raise awareness. But don’t just let your emotion pass you by. This is a serious issue in today’s society, and it needs everyone in society to tackle it. No place for heads in the sand. As the ‘Exposed’ video shows, what’s on the net, stays on the net. Embarrassing photos, blaze comments about teachers or peers, what you did last night. The internet has a memory. There is no concept of delete or privacy. Information is rapidly spread around, and cached. All this information could be available to potential employers, later in life, as it will form part of their digital footprint. Young people need to be aware of this, and to be encouraged to be responsible in how they use cyberspace, and the consequences if they are not.

However, parents especially do need to be careful in their approach towards young people and internet safety. As Will Gardener, CEO of Childnet said “The biggest risk is that we forget the benefits of the internet”.

So what?

I believe all adults have a responsibility to learn about the cool things the internet can provide, but also the dangers. That doesn’t necessarily mean, for example, they have to create their own Facebook profile and learn how to use it, but it does mean they should be aware of how to keep young people safe and responsible by teaching them digital citizenship and e-safety. Simple basics like privacy settings are often neglected. Facebook for example, has a default privacy level which is far from private. Will Gardner, advised parents may “Assist them [children]  to understand the technology, [understand the] benefits and negatives, [adopt] strategies for safe and responsible use and strategies for supporting their children”. Zoe Hilton advised one of CEOP’s focus areas is harm reduction, by developing education and awareness programmes. The key to educating young people, as Chloe Morton pointed out, is to step in when needed, let children involve adults online, and let children own the appropriate action and be involved in deciding it. Most of all, talk. Dr Jo Bryce puts it this way “By young people, for young people, steered by adults”. Dr Bryce suggest young people are best educated by:-

  • Peer mentoring (for example the CyberMentors programme)
  • Young people educating adults (since the youth are digital natives, it makes sense for them to discuss and explain the risks with their parents)
  • Resource development – groups of young people working together to work out how to help one another

She indicated it’s all about empowerment. She said we should “empower young people to manage their online risk”. Dr Bryce advised that some parents find it difficult to understand the technology, and hence the issues of internet safety, and this makes it difficult to engage them in any education. However, the good news is the Good News. She believes faith based groups might actually be more successful in educating young people and parents about internet safety than schools.

Childnet have an education team, who go out into schools, and now nurseries to give talks. They produce free resources (such as the cyberbulling video), to help raise awareness with young people. Childnet also work with the Facebook safety board.

The Beatbullying charity have launched CyberMentors, a program where young people can become mentors, and help others. This initiative is supported by the Royals, as part of William and Kate’s Charitable Gift Fund.


The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

So is the world-wide-web full of selfishness, lies and deceit, waiting to trap our young people? Wouldn’t it be safer to simply prevent them going online?

Don’t get the wrong impression, these issues are a low percentage, but they do need an awareness. Equally, young people get a great benefit from the net. In the UK, around 70% of children use the internet daily for more than 7 activities representing 4-5 skills. They perceive the number of positive opportunities to far outweigh the negative ones*. This represents a high number of activities compared with the rest of Europe, and shows just how useful the internet is to them – a force for good. Chloe Morton from CyberMentors said "the internet is a fantastic medium to reach people and educate them”. Dr Jo Bryce outlined opportunities which are the real plus points of the net;  the ability to explore faith by discussion and debate online, form friendship around faith, and obtain social support and acceptance.

Simon Bass, CEO of CCPAS said “As part of growing up young people take risks. Today those risks are online. This is part of normal development. Technology is neutral”. A key message most speakers wanted to convey was what young people fear the most – parents taking away their internet access, and thereby isolating them from their peer group, and communications channel. The net isn’t a ‘big bad wolf’. Bullying and exploitation has been going on well before the birth of the internet. It’s just a tool. How that tool is used, and how we educate young people on using it, is what will keep them safe, and responsible online. As Childnet International say, it’s about “helping to make the internet a great and safe place for children by promoting the positive and responding to the negative”. Dr Zoe Hilton from CEOP said the issue is with the “behaviour in the offenders, not the technology”.

More here on what young people do online, and what they think about online safety.


Resources for Parents

More resources for parents and teachers to become informed about online risks are available from several sources:-


Resources for Young People

* Source: “Risks and safety on the internet” by the London School of Economics

** Internet Safety Conference conference took place on 10 February in London.