Extracts from a booklet published by Home Office Communication Directorate - Dec 2001


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What Should I know?

Why do I need to worry about safety?  I thought the internet was a wonderful thing?

The internet is a wonderful thing.  It's fun, it's a great way for children to keep in touch with friends, and its educational possibilities are almost unlimited.  But like any technology, it can be abused.

How could that happen?

Places called internet chat rooms allow people to "meet".  These are areas of the internet where people have "conversations" (usually typed, rather than spoken) about common interests such as music, football or television programmes.  Everything that is typed can be seen, more or less instantaneously, by everyone else using the chat room on their own computer.

That seems harmless enough.  What's the problem?

Chat rooms can be completely harmless and they can be a lot of fun.  They are certainly very popular, and there are hundreds of thousands of them.  But you can't tell who anyone is in a chat room.  Because of this, and because chat rooms are particularly popular with children and teenagers, there is a small risk that they can be used by paedophiles or sex abusers looking for victims.  Adults who want to exploit children might pose as teenagers themselves, try to strike up a friendship and eventually try to meet a child or teenager.  This is why the first rule of chat rooms is NEVER to reveal any personal details - that includes full name, address, telephone number, email address and mobile number.  To find out why see "What Can I Do?".

But how can I get involved in all this?  I feel completely overwhelmed by the internet and my children know much more about it than I do.

You can do a great deal.  You can certainly be a good parent or carer and teach safety issues even if you don't know exactly how the technology works.  Take an interest in what your child does online and if you don't know how to use the internet, ask your child to show you.  Let them know they can come to you if something upsetting does happen.  You can also get across the most important safety message about chat rooms.  That is, everyone your child meets in chat rooms is a stranger - and remains a stranger even though your child may consider them to be a friend.  Surfing the internet from the comfort and safety of home can give a false sense of security.

Isn't all this a bit far fetched?

The risk is small but it is real and the consequences can be very serious.  In October 2000, a 33 year old man was imprisoned for having sex with a 13 year old girl he had met in a chat room.  He had built up a relationship with her over several months - a process known as grooming - before they finally met.  There have been many other cases, and those who try to contact children online may be abusing children offline as well.

I still don't understand how it can happen.  If chat rooms are public places, available to all, everyone else would see what was going on.

Once you are in a chat room, you can be invited to have a one to one conversation with someone.  This is like stepping out of a party full of people into a private room and having a separate conversation with a stranger.  No-one else can read what is being written.  It could be extremely dangerous.  Getting a child on their own, and building up a relationship, is exactly what a paedophile wants.  So discourage your child from having one to one conversations.  They should stay in the public area of the chat room, which is open to all, and where they should be much safer.

So that's why they shouldn't give out any personal details?

Exactly.  Tell your child they should never reveal information about their name, address, password or school.  Sometimes children think it is OK to give out a mobile phone number or their email address.  It is not.  It gives a stranger direct access to your child, and you have no way of knowing who is contacting them.  Even something that seems harmless, like who they are playing hockey or football against next week, or where their favourite pizza restaurant is, could be a clue to their identity.  Just as they would not give personal details to a stranger in the street, so it should be with people they meet in chat rooms.

What if they become so friendly with someone they chat with online that they want to meet them in person?

Then always go along too, and arrange to meet in a public place where there are lots of people around.  Children and teenagers should NEVER arrange to meet anyone they have encountered online without a responsible adult being present.

What else can I do to keep my child safe?

Advise them against opening links to other sites they might be sent in a chat room (they may be pornographic). Similarly, they should not open emails from anyone they do not know (again, they may contain pornographic or upsetting images, or viruses which could harm your computer).  This could also be a way for the sender to discover personal details about yourself.

If they are being pestered by someone they do not like in a chat room, there will probably be a facility to block messages from that person (see "What Can I Do?").


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