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Report: Child Safety on Web

By: NMK Created on: July 26th, 2004
Bookmark this article with: Delicious Digg StumbleUpon

In July 2004 NMK held an afternoon conference where an expert panel discussed and explored the many issues surrounding the dangers and subsequent protection of minors in the digital domain.

In July 2004 NMK held an afternoon conference where an expert panel discussed and explored the many issues surrounding the dangers and subsequent protection of minors in the digital domain.

The event opened with an introduction to the subject by the Chair, Ewan MacLeod, who called for the Internet industry to work together in this area.

Session one began with Annie Mullins presenting an overview of online child safety in the UK and Europe, beginning with the distribution of child pornography in May 1996, touching on the development of the Internet Watch Foundation in 1996, and ending with a description of the Home Offices Internet Task Force. Currently the Internet Task Force is producing the E-Crime Strategy that will inform websites and ISPs of how best to protect children who use the Internet, and in lieu of this Mullins made the following points on the best ways for Internet professionals to act with external sources to ensure maximum safety for children who use the Internet:

  • Companies are experts on technology but its important to recognise how technology changes peoples lives both the positive and negative consequences
  • Taking a narrow technical definition will fly in the face of common sense and open you up to ridicule. Not just about corporate but social responsibility
  • Important to consult with customers, parents and children
  • Work in partnership with organisations such as childrens charities dont see them as the enemy. Educate them about the technology and bring them along with you
  • Dont wait for a crisis - be proactive in managing online child safety

Mullins research of the customers view of child safety with regards to Vodafone is that parents are genuinely concerned about their children being exposed to risk through new technologies. And key to providers of services, is that user protection is seen as the Operators responsibility

Sue Barnett backed up the view that user protection is the responsibility of the service provider by raising the points that 80 - 90 percent of ISP revenue comes from porn. Barnett stated that consumers should have a choice in being able to sign up for an ISP that does not allow paedophiles to use their facilities.

Barnett also called for a coherent programme to develop industry standards.

Dr Julia Davidson, a leading academic in this area, agreed that the Internet industry needs to work together closely in order to prevent the dangers to children escalating. After presenting quotes from children who highlight the notion of fear on the Internet because of paedophiles, Davidson made the point that children are at risk from many issues, not just ones arising from the Internet. With regards to child safety on the Internet, Davidson made the following points: 

  • 2003 - 50% households Internet connection (this has now risen)
  • Children are growing up with the net - this provides enormous benefits
  • Can be used by sex offenders to approach children
  • The Internet does not create sex offenders

Davidson stated that sex offenders are accomplished deceivers, and that to groom children online offenders adopt childrens language, knowledge of interests, and also target vulnerable families. In her research Davidson has two examples of quotes from children who believe they would not be targeted:

Teenagers always talk a certain way, Id be able to tell if its an adult (child, age 12).

Children use words that arent formal like slang, so youd be able to tell if they were lying (child, age 13).

However, if these children were in serious risk the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, with s15 meeting a child following sexual grooming, and s123-129 Risk Of Sexual Harm Order would be able to convict the sex offender. Davidson then explored the difficulties and challenges of putting this legislation into practice, and how the Internet industry needs to introduce changes of standards, as well as taking responsibility in assisting children to be safe online through teaching them.

Elena Martellozzo, who has been working alongside Dr Davidson, gave an example of the Metropolitan Polices Safer Surfing initiative. Police officers provide tips to 10-12 year old school children on how to stay safe when surfing in chatrooms.

However, Martellozzo believes that not enough is currently being done to safeguard and protect children from the dangers on the Internet and that there is a need for greater co-operation between the government, the police and schools in properly protecting children. 

The industry needs to encourage appropriate and safe use of this medium while ensuring that children feel comfortable using the Internet, and should be aware of what the police are undertaking in this area.

Rachel Bardill began session two with a case study of CBBC communities by stating that without the community of children who use the CBBC websites the websites wouldnt exist. Bardill explained that the CBBC communities consist of discussion boards, live streaming, expert chats and interaction with the television programmes on which each community is based, and that over 45,000 children use seven message boards. CBBC uses community content as part of their television shows, and transfers knowledge from the television to the Internet through web chats with stars, experts and CBBC presenters.

In order for a child to participate in a CBBC community, they must register on the website and agree to the CBBC rules that exist alongside the moderation methods.

  • In technical terms, Bardill explained the key points to how CBBC moderates messages:
  • All user generated content is pre-moderated
  • Email is sent to users when content breaks house rules
  • Ongoing hosting activity
  • All messages are logged
  • New registration system imminent
  • Quality performance checks

Bardill then explained that should a message be rejected by the team of CBBC moderators it would be explained why to the child who posted it along with feedback on their post. CBBC has ongoing hosting activities, and all messages are logged along with quality performance checks.

CBBC also has a dedicated safety section for children to visit, and this is created with charities using animation, smart raps, and fact sheets in order to get the messages across clearly but also correctly. Problems with this model are:

  • Doesnt encourage children to be responsible for their behaviour
  • Children havent got editorial freedom
  • Non-scaleable moderation system
  • Victim of our own success
  • Moderator / hosts are policemen not facilitators
  • Floodgates waiting to open

The CBBC Club House allows children to create their own small communities where they have the control rather than the CBBC moderators and hosts. This encourages trust, reputation and aspiration within the community. This was tested in schools.

Bardill states that when children are given trusted status this has a positive effect on behaviour and encourages online safety:

  • Aspiration for status means children seek out and observe rules and safety messages
  • Decrease in deleted messages
  • Increase in awareness of internet safety and SMART rules
  • Children relish taking editorial control
  • The downside to this is a lot of duplicate clubs with low editorial value

Robert Marcus explained that moderation works well for communities such as those of CBBC as moderation makes it particularly hard for paedophiles to groom in chat rooms and message boards. Marcus posed the question how secure would you be in allowing children to visit your website if there was no moderation?, and then went on to look at what the UK Government - and in particular the Internet Task Force - would be looking for from Internet practitioners:

  • to moderate chat rooms, forums and other online areas of interaction
  • using real people, (not just software) whose identity has been verified
  • to check the criminal records of moderators
  • to supervise moderators
  • to instruct moderators clearly on how to escalate problems they encounter
  • to discourage sex offenders and grooming
  • to discourage personal data being published
  • to prominently display safety messages
  • to offer easy to use mechanisms for abuse to be reported
  • to allow users to block private (person to person) messages

Next, Marcus defined the role of the moderator, and stated that moderators should be trained to:

  • recognise seemingly predatory online behaviour patterns
  • escalate problems appropriately
  • recognise the limitations of moderation
  • intervene
  • respect the boundaries of their position

Marcus stated that companies with the resources should include moderation in their communities, yet Darren Cockburn believes there are alternatives regarding child safety in communities.

Cockburn stated that Disney has always promoted child safety on the Internet, and believes strongly in the importance of education and online resources for children. Two examples of these are Surfswell Island and Dougs Safe Surfing. Cockburn made the point that Disneys sites have traditionally not allowed interaction between guests, and that because of this there have never been any chat rooms or message boards. Cockburn then went on to describe both Surfswell Island and Dougs Safe Surfing before highlighting how Toontown Online means moderators are no longer required.

Disneys Toontown Online (2003) is the first Massively Multi-Player (MMP) online game where children play a role in an ever-changing online world. Cockburn stated that:

  • Toontown is positioned to be a mass market product
  • It is the first MMP for kids and families
  • Broad appeal of content themes using humor in the tradition of Disneys theme-park attractions
  • Disney brand equals trust and safety
  • Safe for all ages while offering community/cooperative play
  • Game play equivalent to more 'aggressive' titles
  • Ever-changing - unlike CD-ROM this product grows over time

Toontown Online has two communication tools - Speed Chat and Secret Friends that enable children to play within the game safely.

Speed Chat allows communication between all players, uses pre-selected phrases, and is popular with younger children. Secret Friends allows two players who know each other outside the game to chat freely within the game environment through the exchange of a time-sensitive secret password via an external form of communication. This password has two levels of security, and all messages are filtered for obscenities.

Cockburn also explored how the game design focuses on child development and safety, the use of parental controls in the game, and ultimately the balance between usability and fun with safety and security.

The third session of the conference was a panel discussion with all speakers. Questions were posed from the audience.

What is the status of the Home Office guidelines?

Annie Mullins: Ask David Ware at the Home Office! There are extremely well regulated standards that need to be transferred from offline to online, and this is what is taking the time. Weve been working on this for 18 months, and believe that in a few months two to three max it will be completed. Its currently in draft form for consultation.

What are the plans for BBC chat rooms to move forward?

Rachel Bardill: Were not comfortable with post-moderation and will be looking into a trial about that. Wed also like an age verification system in a post-moderation environment.

What do the panel think of bullying? This hasnt been explored today.

Rob Marcus: You need a system in place or moderators who can prevent this an abuse button on a website that forces a moderator into the right place at the right time can be effective.

AM: In New Zealand there is an SMS campaign in partnership with Vodafone to encourage discussion and awareness about online bullying.

RB: CBBC has a trusted VIP method for the communities, people are given ratings and this helps to prevent bullying as the children earn and then are given a position of trust therefore they dont bully.

Darren Cockburn: Larger companies need to realize that moderator recognition is important in moderation - should it be standard?

Should websites have classification on them like films have?

Sue Barnett: ISPs should have classifications on them, it should be standard.

AM: Its difficult as the content distribution is so broad and who would determine the rating of every single website?

DC: The games industry is self-regulated.

AM: Its all about standards and expectations.

Grid Club follows the CBBC prototype of moderation, but it costs how can it be made more viable?

RM: You dont need to read every single message if you can just have a moderator where children can go when they are in trouble or spot something. An abuse button brings a moderator straight into a situation. 98 percent of messages dont need to be read, but to know which ones they are you have to read all of them. We need to find new ways of working out how to protect children more efficiently.

What do the panel think should be done of informing parents?

JD: We need to equip children with the skills to protect themselves its about more than the technology, its about online social skills. If we work with children and parents we need to focus more on the parents, as children know more about the Internet than their parents.  No 12 year old will seek out the information for this themselves, so thats where the parents come in.

RM: Parents should go to the Service Provider if they see something wrong.

JD: They should report to the police. The police have guidelines for parents.

SB: People are now throwing away their PCs because parents arent being educated.

Lizzie Jackson, BBC (from the audience): There is a lack of education offline for parents. The BBC produce a booklet for parents which is included in the delegate packs, but teachers and parents are ignorant of the technologies involved. Supermarkets and magazines are better placed to inform parents.

AM: How do we get parents to read these safety manuals though? Parents should be able to get the information from trusted places like doctors and dentists.

DC: Old media should support new media.

What do the BBC and Disney do with children who turn to them for help?

RM: You need to escalate disclosure if it is serious, go to the NSPCC, go to the client with the material.

RB: The BBC cant help everyone, and we dont hold personal information on people. Because were not counselors we refer people to charities. We have a procedure and we follow it.

DC: Toontown was built around the situation so we hopefully wont have problems in this area.

The event was presented in association with Disney Europe and Neo One.

Take a look at the original conference here


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