Young people and the internet – an inconvenient truth

Yesterday was Safer Internet Day 2010 so I have discovered. Which was covered in the media with the usual rash of stories many of them quite old stories about the risks that young people face on the internet from the predatory activities of paedophiles. One of the things that gets cited is the danger of someone else finding out your age. In this account children and young people are universally cast as the victims and adults by default begin under suspicion.

One of the most interesting aspects of the wired world are the unexpected if not downright bizarre exchanges you have. Here is an account of such a one. From about halfway through last year I started getting SMS messages out the blue from not one but two phone numbers. They weren't offensive more playful. I assumed at the outset that they were from someone I knew whose name I didn't have stored against the phone number. What baffled me was that the messages came from two numbers and they evidently knew one another.  My phone eventually rang and my callers turned out to be bored pranksters from Northern Ireland who claimed they had found my number at random.  At which point you might suppose I should have switched off the phone and left it at that. But I was intrigued – the two girls were curious about me and where I lived and what I did. So I answered their questions. And so after that single phone call when we found it hard to understand one another (their Ulster accents were broad to my ear and mine likewise to theirs), the texts have continued sporadically whenever they were bored. And I continued to answer when they did.

It was only after the initial phone call that I started to wonder whether what I was doing was dangerous or could be perceived as predatory or criminal. I work with children so am covered by CRB checks and thought I should not be having this SMS exchange with children even though my mystery SMS messagers repeatedly claimed to be students who were 18 years  old. So I choose 2 basic rules: – never to initiate contact myself, and to always be truthful when answering questions. So very quickly they learned my age (which they didn't believe) and the fact that I was married and had a family of my own. 

It has been an interesting experience simply allowing a conversation to develop which was not under my control. Some of the questioning has been very direct. From time to time the subject matter has turned to sex and their own sexual behaviour. Which they describe very unselfconsciously. Leaving me with the dilemma – do I change the subject or block the topic? Or just stop the conversation.

I tell this story as a reminder that the internet is a place where all sorts of explorations are going on. And young people are among the main explorers. Here's a link to an article on the topic of youngsters and sexting. I hasten to add there has been none of this in the exchanges I have mentioned above!  I don't think my correspondents are under age but because of the possibility that they are and the impossibility of validating their ages I have to be very careful. The presence of children on the internet without identification is a minefield. Arguably there should be clear identification with the most stringent penalties on inappropriate connections and contacts. The media consensus seems to be that the responsibility falls on adults to verify and avoid the mines (or should that be the minors?). I say this also as a parent with 3 children on the internet for hours every day. Discouraging them from providing information about themselves so no one can take advantage. We tried to promote the rule that none of our children should connect with anyone they didn't know for their own protection. That didn't last very long. You try restricting playing Call of Duty across a network only with friends! I would suggest that more rather than less disclosure should be encouraged with the equivalent of a learner driver certificate attached to children – making them more visible makes them easier to avoid!

And my final reason for this is that the amount of activity by young people on the internet far surpasses the activity of paedophiles. So there need to be safeguards which don't by default criminalise the adult population. But I would welcome comments and suggestions on this. Because its a tricky one.

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