Beware the dark side of the web

Douglas Blane

The internet is a wonderful resource for learning but lurking in cyberspace are people with unwholesome intentions. Douglas Blane reports on an initiative that is spreading a message of caution

A young woman dressed in black talks about her 18-year-old brother. "He used to do lots of stuff but he doesn't do much now. He went out to buy DVDs from somebody he met on the internet. They found his body in a man's flat. I wish I could give Ryan a cuddle and see him smile one last time."

The scene ends and the audience of first and second year pupils at Lourdes Secondary in Glasgow applauds. It was only drama; it wasn't real, not this time.

Predators use the internet to make contact with children, gain their trust and friendship and arrange a meeting. Then they abuse and sometimes kill them.

They are patient, often taking months to build a relationship, and deceitful, pretending to have similar backgrounds and shared interests. It is easy to lie online because no one sees your face.

The internet is a wonderful resource for learning, but a potentially perilous place. Children need to be net-wise as well as streetwise. An arts initiative being piloted at Lourdes Secondary teaches them how.

The internet safety programme set up and run by Strathclyde Police and the Glasgow Community Safety Partnership grabs children's attention with music and drama, then follows up with workshops to develop and reinforce their learning.

In the show, written and performed by drama students from Glasgow Nautical College, four children use their computers while a tall, dark figure in a silver mask chats with each of them in turn, filling the gaps in their lives, morphing into the friend they seek. "I'm Graham." "I'm Sarah. I'm 9." "I'm 15. I love football." "I'm a dancer. Can I come and watch you play?"

"It is magnificent," says Frank Corrigan, principal of the Lourdes learning community. "The music, singing and short scenes hold the kids' attention, and it's good that the performers are not much older than the audience. It means they're on the same wavelength. You can see our pupils are really enjoying it, taking it all in."

After the lively and often moving performance, the audience is divided into groups for workshops led by the drama students.

"Although it was about bad things, it was good," says Christina, 12. "I think I will remember a lot about it."

"We will come back again in a few weeks and talk to them," says Andrew Macdonald, from the community safety department of Strathclyde Police.

"We'll be using interactive voting systems to find out what they think and what they have learned, and if any of them are particularly vulnerable.

"There are no figures on how much internet grooming goes on, but we know it is a real danger. We have statistics on how young people use their computers, some of which are quite worrying. One in seven parents has no idea what their children are doing on the internet; half of all children have had sexual conversations with people they've met on the internet.

"Young people need to learn to protect themselves and stay safe while they're using computers."

The key messages already seem to have got through to the pupils.

"You should never give out your email address if you're in a chat room,"

says Shaiss, 12.

"Somebody on the internet wanted to meet my sister's friend," says Rachel, 11. "She said 'No', and told her parents."

Older pupils at the school will work with the college students to prepare a performance of their own, which they will then take out to Lourdes Secondary's associated primary schools, says Louise Henderson, Glasgow's development officer for safety education.

Other components of the internet safety programme include a DVD of the performance and workshops, a teacher's pack and lesson plans, posters and mouse mats for schools, libraries and learning centres and sessions at the schools for parents, giving information on the benefits and dangers of the internet and advice on software tools to make it safer.

The success of the initiative so far - and the importance of keeping children safe - means the project partners are keen to take it beyond the Lourdes learning community. "We would like to take it to all Glasgow schools," says Mr Macdonald. "So we are looking for partners to work with us and help us fund the next phase."

Louise Henderson, tel 0141 287 6876Andrew Macdonald, tel 0141 532 (see Stay Safe, then Surf Safe for web advice)

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Douglas Blane

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