The latest urban myth is that of the cunning paedophile who lurks in every chat room waiting to groom his victims, says Stuart Waiton
When a panic takes the form of a placard wielding protester who can't even spell the word paedophile, it's pretty easy to spot. When it comes in the form of caring professionals with suits, handouts and a caring tone, it is not so easy - but none the less worrying for that.
At a recent conference on "Child safety: protecting children from the threats posed by modern communications", the tone of the discussion had been preset by a quote from Cathy Jamieson, the Minister for Justice, printed on the front of the flyer. It read: "Those who carry out (child) abuse are clever and they are cunning. The internet that can open up the doors of learning is also the internet they can exploit to reach the child they can abuse."
This weighty and expensive conference, chaired by Newsnight Scotland's John Milne and addressed by a range of experts, including Scotland's Commissioner for Children, Professor Kathleen Marshall, was organised by Holyrood Communications to discuss the threat posed by online paedophiles, and the development of new grooming legislation soon to be introduced in Scotland - legislation that has already been established in England and Wales.
Three assumptions underpinned the themes addressed at the conference: first, that grooming on the internet is a serious problem; second, that young people are vulnerable to grooming; and, third, that parents need to be educated about this threat. Despite these assumptions, however, there appeared to be little evidence or research to back up the concerns.
Before a law is introduced to deal with a social issue - especially in today's "evidence-based" approach to social policy - you would have thought that the extent of the problem would be unearthed to help formulate the law. However, despite the plethora of experts present at the conference, there was a recognition that the evidence of the scale of the problem of grooming was largely unknown.
Indeed, not only is the scale of the problem unknown, but "breach of the peace" laws already exist which deal with the issues grooming legislation addresses. This also raises the question about why this new law is being introduced - a law that Kirsten Davis, from the Scottish Executive's Criminal Justice Division, explained was hard to define.
At the conference, it was also assumed that young people were highly vulnerable to approaches by these "cunning" paedophiles and needed to be educated about them, but is this true?
Research by Gill Valentine for the Economic and Social Research Council has found that in fact the opposite is the case. Young people tend to use the internet with friends rather than in isolation and they use the same common sense and precautions online as they do in everyday life. Most young people are pretty streetwise about the net and are not the vulnerable preyed upon victims portrayed at this conference.
Finally, despite the unanimous acceptance by speakers at the conference that parents needed to be supported in giving advice to their children about the internet, again Valentine's research found that in fact parents generally think that it is relatively straightforward to find ways of monitoring their children when they are online. The issue of technology may well be confusing for some parents - but you don't need a PhD in computer sciences to make sure your children know that other people using chat rooms may not be who they say they are.
Before we spend millions of pounds on "advice and information" campaigns, scaring parents and children about the dangers of grooming, and before we develop laws based on fears and anxieties, perhaps we should step back and assess what the problem is that we are dealing with.
In the current climate of panics about stranger danger, despite the words of caution at this conference, few of the speakers appeared to recognise that, while they may not be carrying banners proclaiming "Out with the peedaphile", they are nevertheless at the front line of a new panic. This is a panic about cunning paedophiles which assumes that young people are stupid and vulnerable and that parents are equally helpless without the support and guidance of these very same "caring" professionals.
Stuart Waiton is organising a conference entitled "Cotton Wool Kids? Making Sense of Child Safety" on September 20. For further information go to www.GenerationYouthIssues.org.