Internet chat can be used in creative ways to connect children together. However as the Smith's story sadly highlights, there are dangers for children online using chat unsupervised, especially where adults use it as a means of seeking to strike up sexual relationships with young teenagers.

Making the Internet, and chat in particular, safer for children is a task which takes all sectors - Industry, Governments, Education, Police, Child-welfare agencies, and parents. Childnet passionately believes in the positive power of the Internet for children and cherishes the right for all to express their views openly. However, where that right seems to conflict with protecting a child from exploitation we believe the welfare of the child must be paramount.

There are a number of organisations both in the UK and world-wide which are working on a wider range of issues. These include:

How parents can better protect their children -
See the NCH Action for Children website:
http://www.nchafc.org.uk/internet/index.html
http://www.safekids.com

How to report illegal material
See the Internet Watch Foundation http://www.iwf.org.uk and the Inhope Association http://www.inhope.org

The pros and cons of using Internet Filtering products
See The UK Consumer Association Which? guide to filters
http://www.iwf.org.uk/safe/tool.htm and Get net wise http://www.getnetwise.org


The need for Internet awareness programmes
See Childnet's research for the European Commission http://www.netaware.org

An international Internet rating system - see the Internet Content Rating Alliance http://www.icra.org

Industry Self-regulation
See the Bertelsmann Foundation's report on Self Regulation of the Internet http://ww.stiftung.bertelsmann.de/internetcontent/english/frameset/home.htm


In relation to the problems of Chat, Childnet recommends the following:

INDUSTRY

Childnet believes that those companies providing chat should act now to review their own policies and procedures in relation to chat room safety. A study Childnet has undertaken of teenage chat rooms hosted in the UK suggests that this aspect has far too low a priority.

We would recommend that as a minimum for any chat room (but especially those aimed at teenagers) companies should prominently and frequently display on screen a banner or message which contains the following warnings:

  1. Be careful - people online may not be who they say they are.
  2. Don't give out any personal information (eg where you live, your school, telephone number etc) - you may end up being contacted by people you don't want.
  3. Never arrange to meet someone offline unless you
    • are sure who they are;
    • go accompanied (if you are under 18 by your parent or carer); and
    • meet in a public place.

We would also recommend that these companies give prominence to these messages on their log in screens. If they offer chat especially aimed at teenagers we would ask you them to consider providing adult moderation to these groups. Our review suggests that whatever terms of service companies may have restricting participants from bad language or inappropriate conduct, these are frequently broken with no consequence.

There is a UK inter-agency group involving police, government, industry, child welfare groups and others that has been considering these issues of child safety and chat, and which will be issuing more comprehensive guidance in the near future. But this matter is urgent. Companies need to act now before other children are hurt. Childnet wants to help the industry in protecting children and hopes that they will be able to include the CHAT Danger banner ads on their chat sites and link and support this website.


FOR GOVERNMENTS

Governments should support and fund awareness campaigns dealing with Internet safety. Governments should ensure that all schools forbid access from their networks to unmoderated chat rooms

Governments should review their laws to

  1. Ensure that they can prosecute offenders for seeking to lure children in chat rooms with the purpose of sexual exploitation;
  2. Examine whether law enforcement can be given the power to pretend within chat rooms to be children with the purpose of pre-emptively identifying and charging those who are seeking to lure children for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This is currently permitted in countries like the USA and New Zealand resulting in numerous arrests.


FOR POLICE

A specialised national computer crime squad should be established without delay. Such a squad should be a focus of technical and policing expertise and should have the protection of children as a primary objective. This squad should develop high contacts with their foreign counterparts so that they gain from the technical know-how of others and be able to respond internationally to the problems of a global medium.

Local police forces should receive training in Internet crime and especially in timely preservation of evidence in a cases when a suspect is identified. They must be equipped with high performance computer equipment.

Police forces can also play a stronger pro-active role in fighting computer crime by running Internet safety campaigns as they do in other areas of crime prevention.




FOR PARENTS

For advice on how parents should keep their children safe see Parents' Guide