We scare because we care

A government campaign to keep kids safe online risks putting their enjoyment of the internet in danger.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

‘Let’s make the internet a safe place. If anyone makes you feel uncomfortable while you’re chatting, or even if you think they are just acting strange, then report them.’ (1)

This is the advice given to children by the ‘think U know’ website, which warns of paedophiles lurking in internet chatrooms, ‘grooming’ children as a prelude to meeting and molesting them.

A toolbar on the site asks ‘What happened to Adam?’ and ‘What happened to Sarah?’ – linking to grim fables that drive the safety message home: ‘Sarah thought she knew this person really well, but found out the hard way, that she really didn’t….’ (2)

Such advice will now be hammered at children and their parents online, on TV, on the radio, and in cinema ads. This is all part of a £1million campaign by the UK government to ‘encourage parents to make sure their children understand the dangers of communicating with strangers online and…equip them with the skills and confidence required to address the issue of grooming activity with their children, without demonising the internet’ (3).

Doing all of this ‘without demonising the internet’ is a bit tricky. Home Office minister Hilary Benn may defend the campaign by claiming that ‘it’s not intended to add to worry, it’s about giving our children the information they need to protect themselves’ – but this simply confirms that the internet is something children and parents should worry about (4).

Of course, parents want to be able to supervise what their children read and who their children speak to online. And this can be awkward in instances where children are more technically competent than their parents. But the mentality encouraged by the government inflates the threat posed by paedophiles, until it almost appears to be the defining characteristic of the internet.

The government’s approach also underestimates the capacity of parents to supervise their children as they see fit. There seems to be an assumption that parents are incapable of instructing their children to behave sensibly in different circumstances.

But such initiatives are not new. Depicting the internet as being populated by stalkers and paedophiles has been an ongoing government project. The Home Office boasts that ‘the campaign will build on last year’s success, which resulted in an 11 percent increase in awareness among children to not give out their personal details online and a 12 percent increase among parents of safety measures for children using the internet’ (5). Presumably, the target-happy government will carry on campaigning until 100 percent of parents and children live in a government-approved state of fear.

In recent years, while government bodies such as the Home Office Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet, the Internet Crime Forum, and the National Hi-Tech Crime Squad have grappled with the threat of online paedophiles, a number of non-governmental organisations – Childnet International, the Internet Watch Foundation, ChildLine and others – have clamoured for the government to do more (6).

Add to this a raft of large-scale safety initiatives by international organisations – Cyberangels, Pedowatch, Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe, Innocence in Danger – and you have a recipe for overbearing panic (7).

And this panic is not restricted to paedophiles – it extends to chatrooms themselves and the people who run them. The Home Office has issued ‘models of good practice’ for developers and designers, advising that chatrooms should incorporate panic buttons and prominent safety messages. The UK Guardian has called for people running chatrooms ‘to be brave enough to take them down if they can’t moderate them properly’ (8).

Despite these initiatives, it is far from clear what evidence exists for a significant paedophile threat on the internet. In 2001, the statistic that one in every five children using internet chatrooms is approached by a paedophile became received wisdom in government circles – despite having been misappropriated from a US report which concluded nothing of the sort. The Home Office report Chat Wise, Street Wise: Children and Internet Chat Services, which attempted to assess the paedophile threat, could only list four instances where an adult was prosecuted for having arranged to meet a child in a chatroom (see Are you the one in four?).

In 2002, the disappearance of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman prompted fears that they met their abductor in an internet chatroom – starting a wave of panic about chatrooms that continued even after it transpired that the internet had nothing to do with the girls’ abduction (9).

The government-orchestrated panic around internet paedophiles defies reason, defining a communications medium in terms of extraordinary acts of sexual abuse. The resulting climate can only discourage technologists and web designers from developing innovative new ways for us to communicate. If communication between strangers is widely perceived to be risky, then new opportunities for increasing the universalising aspects of the internet will not be pursued.

Worst of all, rather than being allowed to decide for themselves how to supervise their children’s use of the internet, parents are being co-opted into scaring them.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Blunkett under the blanket, by Josie Appleton

Defending the indefensible online, by Sandy Starr

Back to the asylum, by Jennie Bristow

TV as judge and executioner, by James Heartfield

(1) Where can I get more help?, on the think U know website

(2) Sarah’s story, on the think U know website. Also see Adam’s story

(3) New drive to protect children online, Home Office, 6 January 2003

(4) Online child safety drive launched, BBC News, 6 January 2003

(5) New drive to protect children online, Home Office, 6 January 2003

(6) See the Internet Crime Forum, Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation, and Suzy Lamplugh Trust websites. The Children’s Charities Coalition for Internet Safety incorporates Barnardo’s, ChildLine, the National Children’s Bureau, National Children’s Homes, the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Children’s Society

(7) See the Cyberangels, Pedowatch, Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe, and Innocence in Danger websites

(8) New drive to protect children online, Home Office, 6 January 2003; The chatroom dilemma, Owen Gibson, Guardian, 19 August 2002

(9) See Turning tragedy into trivia, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

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