This is a guest post by Vicky Anscombe.
Have you heard of Disney’s ‘Club Penguin’? You probably will have, if you have children of an age that are just starting to become curious about the internet. Tech entrepreneur Lance Merrifield set up the child-friendly social network in October 2005, and it’s attracted over 150 million children since it was launched. Children younger than 13, who are still too small for Facebook and don’t fancy the daunting prospect of teen chat-rooms, have embraced the site, which offers a safe haven for children to meet others online. Participants can decorate an igloo, ‘waddle’ around and socialize ‘safely’ - but how?
Cleverly, the site has turned the idea of exclusion around. A paedophile could technically join, but due to filters that limit certain words and discussions, their actions would be severely limited.
"Words such as address, school and phone number are not allowed; it is a truly anonymous environment. There is simply no opportunity for personally identifiable information," said Mr Merrifield.
This is great news for worried parents, but it begs the question, can the internet ever truly be safe? Would it be better to allow your child to grasp the internet on their own terms after a few well-thought out lessons on keeping safe, rather than create a sanctuary that has very little in common with the real world? Children these days are all-too aware of the dangers of strangers; and our children eat the same food as adults, walk the same streets, and engage with adults on a daily basis. Understanding ways of interacting with adults and negotiating a way of communicating effectively with them helps our children grasp the world around them (as terrifying and confusing as it sometimes is) and encourages independence. Many parents scorn others who insist on walking their children everywhere and nervously curb their boundaries - could the same be said of internet use?
Would educating children to the dangers of the net then allowing them (relatively-free) rein be more helpful? Wrapping a child in ‘internet-based cotton wool’ and only showing them the ‘safe’ side of the world will result in disaster when the real side of the internet rears its ugly head. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to tell children how to recognise danger, and how to deal with it? The real world is awash with the same menaces the internet harbours. Bullies, paedophiles and other nasty pieces of work don’t just sit behind screens. You wouldn’t dream of not telling your child about the dangers of wandering off or going home with an unknown person - don’t be lax about doing the same with the internet.
It’s not just children that have to be streetwise. Pop star and showbiz icon Kylie Minogue recently called the police after being harassed on Twitter by an obsessed fan, who had sent her threatening messages.
Ms Minogue tweeted: ‘I love 1,033,861 of you LOVERS, but 1 is not a lover, just a deluded weirdo making threats #andthatdoesnotmakeyouspecial SO..police alerted’, which immediately drew a supportive response from her adoring fans.
Whilst some may see this as a very public snub, and admire Ms Minogue’s stand against her harasser, it’s worrying that a tweet like this could also be seen as an eventual recognition of a stalker’s efforts. A message like this says many other things, and doesn’t necessarily connote dusting one’s hands of the matter. ‘You’ve scared me, and made me angry,’ is what it says. ‘You succeeded in your efforts to worry me, so I called the police. You got through to me, and I was so stressed by the whole affair, I let everyone know. You win.’
Responding to hateful messages on a social media site is the equivalent of chasing a car-full of leering wallies down the road after they’ve just made some sexually-aggressive statements whilst driving past you. It just doesn’t happen - you feel momentary anger, consider a rude hand gesture then get on with your day. Responding, in these situations, only makes the matter worse - and lets your aggressor get the upper hand.
The internet will never be 100% safe – but that doesn’t mean we should fear it. The only thing we can do is teach our children, and ourselves, ways of dealing sensibly with the dangers it sometimes presents. The internet’s a bit like the sea, in a way - embrace it for what it is, by all means, have fun - but always be aware of its strength, and its capacity for cruelty.