Chatroom cop-outs

10th October 2003 at 01:00
With Microsoft's decision to shut its online meeting sites discussion of child safety really has left the real world behind, says Stuart Baird

As a method of communication, I find chatrooms chaotic, disjointed and often plagued with a lexicon beyond my comprehension. The demise of Microsoft's chatrooms will have no immediate impact on how I use the internet but it does capture the prevailing mood towards the safety of children and their use of the net. The result augurs ominously for the future.

For a technology that offers to improve the lives of children through access to a wide range of information and communication tools, it is the negatives that are focused on again and again. It is accepted that the internet possesses a series of risks to children. Safety issues are championed by many sites offering such advice as avoiding giving out personal details, reinforcing the old adage of "stranger danger".

For chatrooms a focus for concern is the "grooming" of children by paedophiles. The term grooming describes communication between an adult and child which on the surface may appear innocuous but can lead to something sinister later on. Grooming as a term helps to broaden and blur the idea of risk online and questions communication between an adult and a child.

As Microsoft puts it, the closure of the chatrooms was "to help safeguard children from inappropriate communication online". Microsoft's decision follows the current vogue for taking exceptional events and shaping policy and action around them.

We have to ask ourselves: should such rare occurrences determine access to a technology used by millions of people?

Chris Atkinson, of the NSPCC, is pleased with Microsoft's decision but that is coloured by her understanding of chatrooms as "a major supply line for sex abuses". The use of dramatic statements is commonplace where children's safety is concerned. John Carr, from the charity National Children's Homes, resorted to the "tip of the iceberg" strategy earlier in the week when he was reported to have said in regard to the small number of convictions for child abuse after chatroom contact: "What we don't know about are all the cases where the police couldn't get enough evidence."

In a sense the technology is confused with the problem. In Microsoft's case the problem was its inappropriate use and the solution is its withdrawal.

Yet the issue of child abuse existed before chatrooms and will continue to exist after Microsoft closes its chatrooms down.

The internet itself mirrors a large city reflecting the diversity of life.

Just as you would not let your children wander off without believing that they have the experience to deal with situations as they occur, or perhaps avoid situations altogether, so you shouldn't leave your children to get by online. It is a case of being streetwise, or an online equivalent.

Just as parents can judge what children can do outside the house so they should judge what children could do online. The risk stories of life online mirror those of the real world and, if you are apt to curtail your children's activity because of the current panic, whatever that may be, then you are likely to curtail their activity online as well.

The key here is experience. Parents appreciate that knowing something is only part of it and that understanding comes from experience. Children find that chatrooms fulfil a need to experiment and test boundaries. Using a chatroom gives the opportunity online for self-expression and play and it is the parents' responsibility to make sure that children can deal with what can appear as a virtual playground or virtual jungle.

Such a position stands in contrast to that of the children's charities which overplay the dangers of the internet and the overzealous attitude of Microsoft which is taking over the monitoring role of parents. As super_silly_peace, the online name of a young person, posted to the BBC's Newsround bulletin board: "i talk to people from all over the world, america mainly. They are all so fun to talk to but even if they aren't who they say they are i'll never meet them . . . A lot about the internet is using your common sense."

A sense of perspective is often lost in discussion around the safety of children. In closing down one method of use of a popular new technology, the discussion of children's safety really has left the real world behind.

Stuart Baird teaches computing at Falkirk High.

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