Family Online reveals dangers for children online

The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) has told TechEye that it is “not sure” the CEOP panic button for children on Facebook is the answer and that cyberbullying is a much more pressing problem than online predators.

We spoke to Stephen Balkam, CEO of FOSI, about the addition earlier this week of an optional CEOP report feature, dubbed by many as a “panic button”, for people between the ages of 13 and 18 using Facebook. 

Many groups, including CEOP itself, wanted the feature made mandatory and default for children, but Facebook believed educating children about ClickCEOP and letting them decide for themselves if they wanted to install and use it, was a better option. In our discussion with Balkam it appears that FOSI agrees.

He said that the new feature is good, but Facebook already has a reporting mechanism hardwired into its service and that ClickCEOP merely adds an additional layer to that reporting ability. He also said that access to CEOP was already there without the addition of the button, and that children are more likely to use it if it engages and interests them enough to install it as opposed to simply having it made default.

We asked if Facebook was doing enough to protect children online and he said he believes it is and that it is aware of the dangers children face on social networks. He said that there was a steep learning curve, especially considering Facebook began in a dorm room in Harvard and now has over 500 million users. He said child safety was probably the last thing on its mind at that time, but it has been forced to become more aware of these issues as it has grown.

Balkam said that the leaders for online social networking, such as Facebook, Myspace, Bebo and Youtube, have put in place a number of systems to protect children. He said members need to be 13 years of age, but sometimes kids put up pictures of their 10th birthday, for example, and these social networks have bots who thrawl through profiles to search for and delete such pictures to prevent abuse. He said they also have people in charge of approving photos and profiles who look for this sort of thing. It does, however, raise a privacy concern if Facebook and other social networks are sending bots to scour our pictures online.

While Balkam recognised the efforts Facebook and others have done to protect children online, he said they “can always do more”, including better education and publicising of safety information.

Regarding the ClickCEOP feature specifically he said he is “not 100 percent convinced” by it and that this solution should not be made default, which is in stark contrast to what the Family Rights Group told us on Monday

He said he has some concerns about CEOP and the police being inundated with reports that may not be of a criminal nature and that they simply do not have the resources to deal with such a large level of complaints. He said that Facebook knows its customers better than an external police agency, and while he refused to say that the feature could lead to potential abuse he admitted that it could lead to a high level of confusion and overstretch police forces with reports that do not warrant their attention.

He said that while ClickCEOP may be appropriate for the UK, it certainly is not for the US. He was deeply concerned about “electronic aggressive behaviour”, but said he was “not so sure” CEOP was the answer. He said that it is certainly not appropriate for the UK to bring in any laws that might force users to adopt the measure. He said a government mandate to make social networks utilise these features would be totally useless outside the UK and would especially fall foul of the First Ammendment in the US. He also believed that a legal battle would need to be waged to define what qualifies and does not qualify as a social network in the first place.

He revealed that the dangers for children online are different to what people think. In particularly he highlighted how many people perceive the threat of online predators as high, which he said is actually much less than reported by the media. He said that less than one percent of sex crimes involve the internet, but these few are what make headlines. Contrary to what some might suggest, he revealed that most children are “not in any imminent danger”. He highlighted the example of a programme that ran in the US called Catch a Predator, which suggested that simply going online exposed a child to a predator, a matter which is simply not supported by the figures, he commented.

Balkam said that cyberbullying, on the other hand, is a much more troublesome area, and children are more at risk of this online than anything else. He said research has shown that one in three teens, and 40 percent of older teenage girls in particular, experience bullying online, which he believes is astounding. He said that younger teens have a tendency to bully, but that persistant oppressing behaviour of cyberbullying can have some very devastating effects, including depression, withdrawal, and, in some rare and tragic cases, suicide. He said that ongoing dialogue and engagement with children is needed to discourage such behaviour.

We asked if it is the responsibility of a school to punish students who bully online and he said that this is a “grey area”. He revealed that in the US some schools have denied responsibility, while others have attempted to penalise students who have broken rules outside of their jurisdiction, only to be brought to court on the matter by the bullies’ parents. He said he believes we are heading towards a situation where there is no distinction between school life and home life, which will be partly fuelled by students bringing smartphones, laptops, portable gaming devices, and other technology into schools, which are not the property of the school, but can connect to the internet and be used for cyberbullying.

Balkam said the police should not be the first point of call for incidents of cyberbullying, unless it is an issue that involves obvious criminal behaviour. He said it is important not to criminalise natural child behaviour which we all experienced in some form as we grew up, but rather to involve the behavioural experts and get children engaged with programmes to educate and reduce incidents of bullying, both online and off.

He said that is also a growing risk of “sexting”, which is the sending of sexually explicit messages or images through text messages on mobile phones. This issue may be closely tied to cyberbullying, but may also be a case of teenagers messing about, not realising the legal ramifications of such behaviour.

Online addiction is also becoming an issue, he revealed. Children may be spending too much time online on websites, social networks, games, and so forth, which can adversely affect their homework and may lead them to be more withdraw from society.

He said that parents need to talk to their kids regularly and educate them on safety online. He said that FOSI employs a Family Safety Contract which both parents and children sign after discussing the issue. He said that “sanctions” should be put in place by parents for when children break rules in order to ensure such behaviour does not remain ongoing.

As for governments, he said he would like to see the United States and other countries adopt a model similar to the UK Council for Internet Safety, which he believes is one of the best approaches to the matter. It provides a context for the government to work with other groups on disc
ussing the problem and bringing in education programmes to address it. He aid that passing laws to tackle online child safety is like “using a hammer to crack a nut” and would only lead to further problems. He said that a balanced approach that involves educating young people is much more likely to have success.