Saturday, 1 March 2008

Possible Brush With Evil

Constant vigilance and no complaisancy. That is the role of a parent when their children use the Internet.

It is frightening how danger can sneak in.

Having been a police officer, Richard is only too well aware of the horrors perpetrated by the human race, abuse that most of the population could not even imagine in their worst nightmares.

Coming from the IT industry, I have no misconceptions about the safety of the Internet, where the young are the most vulnerable. Because they have not yet learned those adult skills - cynicism and scepticism.

We have taken seriously the need to educate our girls on the dangers of the web, we monitor their usage carefully (albeit discretely) and our PCs are in full view in the main room of the house. None of this sitting alone in a room for hours on end, getting involved in goodness knows what sites.

Even so, danger can sneak in.

There are hundreds and thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of sites offering games to be played for free. In most cases it is very obvious the age groups they are targeting. Now think about it - very few people offer something for nothing. You have to be a cynic - and ALWAYS look for the hidden reason behind such good offers. Not all are just aiming to gain from advertising.

We keep an eye on the site(s) that Nic in particular plays games on - which are very popular with all her friends. Unrealistic to insist on and 'police' a total ban, she was allowed by us to select a limited number to go on.

The girls both know they are NOT allowed to sign in or sign up to anything without our explicit permission, and are only allowed to have 'conversations' with people they have actually met face to face. We have discussed things like messaging and 'talking' to people on the web - and how easy it is for people to pretend to be children like them.

It is a fine and difficult balance between awareness of danger and not frightening them rigid or stifling their usage of technology.

Even so, danger can sneak in - and so quickly.

One of Nic's best friends throughout the six years since we came to France spends a lot of unsupervised time on the Internet, and it is she that usually finds and passes on details of all the great games sites she discovers.

Whilst she was here a few days ago for a sleepover she mentioned to Nic that she was a part of a super 'clan' on one of Nic's favourite game sites. A site that Nic has been safely playing on for a year now, nothing else but the basic free games (eg no logging/signing in).

We popped out to the apartment for about an hour today and when we came back Nic was on the site. As I kissed her hello, I noticed she was typing away - not usually necessary on a games site?! And asked about it....

She explained that it was Ok - she had 'just' asked to join the 'clan' that her friend was in and had been welcomed. The tone of her typing was as if she was chatting to her friend. When questioned by us, she explained that she had only sent two quick messages and of course it was not a 'chat room' or a messaging site - she knew these were dangerous. She had just joined the same 'clan' as her friend.....

In her request to join she had explained why her message was partly in French and partly in English - that she indeed was English. One of the replies asked why didn't she send some photos of herself....

The next hour was difficult. Not panicking. Not frightening Nic too much - but trying again to get across the issues. The difficulty is that younger children believe what they see. Believe what a 'friend on the web' tells them.

I went to all her favourite game sites with her again and we talked again about the things to spot etc - it was frightening to me the number of different ways there were to get the children to impart info and to 'join in'. All under different guises. Younger children (like Nic) will follow your explicit instructions about what not to do - the trouble is you as parents cannot imagine all the permutations that the sites think up. And the younger children do not yet have the required deviousness to recognise things that are similar but not exactly the same.

We had warned her about chatting and messaging. They talked about joining a 'clan', contacting friends, becoming a 'superstar' etc and asked questions like click here to tell us who your favourite Pokemon character is - all designed to get the child to open up a dialogue.

One site was all about dressing up on-screen characters. If you elected to join the 'fashion house as a designer' it obviously got you to fill in lots of personal info. On the home page it gave a list of 'Superstars and Fashion Designers currently on-line' and invited you to 'click on their links to ask them questions'. On its home page it listed those currently logged in: Girl, 6 years old, Brazil; Girl, 11 years old, England; etc. It invited you to design a character that 'looked just like you'. Presumably as an alternative to photos to begin with....or am I just being a cynic?!

I sit here now and consider how lucky we have been - Nic had only signed in to ONE site and we found out within a few days.
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>It might have been all quite innocent on this site that Nic was on. It might not.

I spent this evening looking on the web for who to report our concerns to about the site. Hopefully it will be checked out.

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