Social networking a web of deceit

We want to encourage children to use these sites, but there has to be a safety net for the most vulnerable

WHEN Georgia's mother Sarah-Jane found a note her 13-year-old daughter had written in which she expressed her desire to die, she knew she had to act. Once a bubbly, popular girl, Georgia had fallen out with her closest friends in an argument over a boy; just an everyday teenage squabble. But it wasn't long before she had become a victim of vicious cyberbullying.

First Georgia's Bebo site was bombarded with messages calling her fat and ugly, then someone posted a nasty song about her. Finally there were threats to attack and even kill her.

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Sarah-Jane shut down Georgia's Bebo site, but she started receiving nasty texts on her mobile phone. Georgia became withdrawn and Sarah-Jane thought she might be suffering from bulimia. Then, when her daughter was on an adventure training course, Sarah-Jane found the note in her daughter's bed. "I really can't take any of this any more. No-one is taking me seriously. People are laughing about me and I've no-one to be with. I feel worthless," it said.

Thankfully, Georgia's school arranged for both her and the bullies to get counselling and the situation improved. But others have not been not so lucky: in June 2008, Sam Leeson, a 13-year-old fan of Emo music, from Gloucestershire hanged himself after months of abuse on his Bebo site. And then there was Megan Meier in Missouri who killed herself after being taunted online by a "boyfriend" who had in fact been invented by a 47-year-old neighbour.

There is no doubt about it: while there are many good things about social networking sites, protecting young people from bullies and paedophiles is a growing problem.

Although most social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace are supposed to be for the over-13s, many younger children lie about their age when signing up. But by doing so, they risk placing themselves at the mercy of not just bullies, but also paedophiles who hope to groom them for sex. With parents often ignorant as to how the sites work, and the sites themselves less than proactive in dealing with the problem, young people may feel they have nowhere to turn.

According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, a fifth of ten and 11-year-olds have been subjected to threats, taunts and insults via the internet and mobile phones. And just a few days ago, Central Scotland Police urged parents to be more vigilant after revealing Operation Pincer – an investigation into abuses of social networking sites in Forth Valley – had identified 2,000 e-mail addresses used by men who were trying to make contact with children online.

Last week, Bebo – highlighted in the Beatbullying report Virtual Violence as one of the worst sites for cyberbullying – added a panic button which will allow children to seek help if they believe they are being targeted by bullies or sexual predators. The button is a kind of one-stop shop, providing links to ten different sources of support and advice, from children's charities to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), the department of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, whose job it is to investigate online child sex offenders. But other, larger social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have refused to follow suit, despite intensive lobbying from CEOP, claiming their existing safety procedures are sufficient.

So how are we to ensure our children's safety online? Should the social networking sites be taking more responsibility for protecting the children who make up such a large proportion of their customer base? Or is it up to parents to exert greater controls over what sites their sons and daughters are visiting?

Log in to the social networking site Mumsnet and it is clear how worried parents are about the impact the internet is having on their children's lives. On any given day, the talkboards will be buzzing with posts from angst-ridden mothers and fathers seeking advice on how best to protect kids from the perils of the virtual world. With the average British child between the ages of five and 15 now spending 130 minutes a day online, most parents want to provide support and guidance, but are unsure how to go about it.

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"If their children are walking into town or to the park, that is something they understand," says psychologist Graham Jones, who specialises in the use of the internet. "They will most likely have made the journey themselves, they will know the route, be able to make a judgment on how much traffic there's likely to be at certain times of the day. They can assess the risks because they have experienced them. But when it comes to their teenagers going online, many parents have no real experience to go on."

Even when they are internet-savvy, parents are often constrained by the fear that too much intervention will make their children rebel. Mother of four Anne Duncan, from East Renfrewshire, knows only too well how difficult it can be to strike a balance between monitoring children's use and intruding on their privacy.

"When my eldest child Helen started using MSN, I was initially suspicious not only because I might not know who she was talking to, but also because things that were being said online amongst friends were developing into huge arguments. I tried to explain: 'You can't intonate online, you don't know how people are going to take things.' Now she's 18 and on Facebook all the time. The computer she uses is in her own room, so she could be up there unsupervised all night. I do pop in every now and again and say: 'What site are you on?', but I wouldn't say I was exactly monitoring her. She is older now, and she is a sensible girl."

Unfortunately, not all young people are as sensible as Helen, nor their relationships with their parents as open. A survey by broadband provider TalkTalk recently found that, on average, children believed their parents would disapprove of 28 per cent of their online activity. A staggering 62 per cent admitted lying to their parents about their online behaviour, with 44 per cent boasting they knew how to hide any "unsuitable" internet activity.

The same survey found 44 per cent of parents never checked their children's internet history, while 25 per cent had no idea what security level their search engine's content filter was set to. "This research reveals the predicament facing Britain's parents," says Professor Tanya Byron, a psychologist who has conducted her own research into the dangers children face on social networking sites.

Her own answer to this is Kwercus, a secure social networking site designed for schools which was launched last week. When it goes live next year, children will be able to communicate freely, but all passwords will be given out and controlled by the school and certain inflammatory words will trigger a red flag.

Such initiatives might teach some children how to protect themselves in the virtual world, but there will be those who find the allure of mainstream sites impossible to resist. That's why many organisations believe the panic button is so important. CEOP says the button – which has been on MSN and many smaller sites for several years – has already proved its worth. "We get 10,000 reports on the button every month, and 5,000 of those a year lead to a criminal investigation," says Zoe Hilton, the organisation's head of safeguarding and child protection.

The majority of reports made to CEOP by children themselves involve sexual grooming, with cases ranging from instances where offenders have infiltrated social networking sites and other online environments to collect pictures of young children, to examples of sustained grooming, culminating in offenders seeking to meet a child offline for sexual abuse.

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"We want to encourage children to use social networking sites, but there has to be a safety net for the most vulnerable," says Hilton. "Not only does the button provide that, but it acts as a deterrent, like a burglar alarm or speed cameras do in the real world. It shows people they can be held to account for their actions."

But is it enough? Richard Piggin, head of operations at Beatbullying, thinks social networking sites should be more proactive, responding to reports of abuse more promptly and, in particular, taking down offensive material within six hours of it being reported.

"When a message like that is posted it's not like one person saying something nasty to another in the playground, it's not even like ten other people in the playground overhearing it – literally thousands of people could be reading it; it's really distressing," Piggin says. "You are never going to make any environment 100 per cent safe, but at least this way if you do get into trouble, you have easy access to support."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however. Graham Jones, for example, fears that if bigger social networking sites add the button, CEOP and the other organisations will receive more calls than they can cope with. And that's without taking into account the very real possibility that the button itself will be abused.

"If CEOP and the police had to trawl through thousands of reports trying to work out what was real and what wasn't, then that would be counter-productive," he says.

Certainly for Anne Duncan, communication has proved a vital tool in safeguarding her own daughter online: "Whenever there has been a story in the press about men taking girls they have met in a chatroom, we have spoken about it. I think the fact we have talked openly, rather than keeping our fears to ourselves has helped us a great deal."

Social networking in numbers

Four out of five internet users in the UK visited a social networking site at least once in May 2009. The figure rose to 90 per cent for those aged 24-35.

• The average 15-24 year-old surfer spends five and a half hours on social networking sites a month

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• The number of unique internet users aged 15 and over in the UK jumped 7 per cent from 34 million to 37 million between May 2008 and May 2009.

• The number of unique users leapt 9 per cent in the same period, to 29.5 million.

• Facebook soared in popularity in the period, with unique users soaring 57 per cent from 15 million to nearly 24 million in the UK. Its worldwide market was 370 million, the same as the population of the United Kingdom and the United States put together.

• Some 11 per cent of Facebook unique users are believed to be 17 or under.

• More than half of Facebook users in Britain were said to have household income of more than 30,000 a year. More than a quarter earned more than 50,000.

• Bebo fell from nearly 12 million to 8.5 million. However, nearly half of Bebo's unique users are 17 or under.

• MySpace saw its unique visitors down from 8.5 million to 6.5 million. The number of people, meanwhile, logging on to Friends Reunited halved from 3.2 million to 1.6 million.

Sources: ComScore and Xposure.

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