One of the greatest advancements of the 20th century was the development of the Internet. This global communications system has revolutionized the way the world shares information and conducts commerce. It is a remarkable tool that has truly made the world a much smaller place. With a few clicks of a mouse, a person in Idaho can instantly be connected with another person in Bangladesh, sharing text, images, video, and audio virtually in real time. The ability to do research, share information, diagnose disease, and engage in commerce has been forever changed by the phenomenon that is the World Wide Web.
The internet is a neutral tool for disseminating data, which can be used for good or for ill. On the one hand, for example, it has enormous potential as a source of education for people of all ages and capacities. On the other hand, the internet can be used to set online traps to exploit users for criminal purposes. Among those who are most vulnerable to such traps are children.
Discussions at WSIS
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) included discussion of how best to protect children from online predators, while also encouraging the positive use by young people of information and communications technologies (ICT). In the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action, agreed by world leaders in December 2003, “all actors in the information society” are urged to take action and preventive measures against the use of ICT for any form of child abuse. This principle was echoed in the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda that resulted from the second phase of WSIS in November 2005 (see box).
New types of risk in cyberspace are growing with the emergence of new devices, such as mobile internet access, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, instant messaging, chat rooms, multi-player interactive games and web cameras. The impact on children was highlighted at a meeting arranged by the organization End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), based in Thailand, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) during WSIS in Tunis. At this meeting, ECPAT presented its new report, “Violence against Children in Cyberspace,” which had been compiled as part of a United Nations study on violence against children. “This report gives the global community no excuse for saying that we didn’t know’ or ‘we couldn’t foresee’ the exponentially increasing violence caused to children in relation to new information and communication technologies,” says UN study leader Professor Paulo Pinheiro in the report’s introduction.
“The global community (has) no excuse for saying that ‘we didn’t know’ or ‘we couldn’t foresee’
the exponentially increasing violence caused to children in relation to new information and communication technologies.”
Professor Paulo Pinheiro, leader of a UN study on violence against children
But with any unregulated medium, there is a dark side. And those who are sadly most impacted by this are often children. Instantaneous access to virtually anyone, anywhere has made it possible for those who prey on children to have a back door to enter the homes of unsuspecting children and prey on those least capable of caring for themselves.
June has been designated “Internet Safety Month” by the U.S. Senate. The goal is to raise awareness among parents, educators, law enforcement, elected officials, and communities at large about the dangers that lurk on the Internet and how to proactively combat these threats. In particular, communities need to come together to battle the growing threat of Internet predation against children.
More than 35 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently have internet access, and this access is often unsupervised. At any given time, there are more than 3,000,000 people in anonymous chat rooms and their identities are often unknown (or disguised). 1 in 5 middle school, junior high and high school students have met face-to-face with someone they first met online, and this number is growing at an alarming rate. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 7 youth (between the ages of 10 and 17) received a sexual solicitation or were approached in a sexual manner while online, yet few of these incidents are reported to parents, guardians or law enforcement personnel.
At present, pedophiles maintain and operate more than 10,000 known websites worldwide, with many hosted outside the US in countries who turn a blind eye to the exploitation of children. Pedophiles maintain a sophisticated network to share strategies, pictures, video, and gloat of their successes. Yet the resources devoted to stemming the growing tide of Internet predation is miniscule when compared to the threat.
Filtering software is an essential tool to protecting children, but it is not the only tool. Industry statistics indicate almost 1 in 3 children who are online have the technical skills to circumvent most Internet filtering software, and nearly 2 in 3 children admit to using the Internet in an unsafe or inappropriate manner. Educating children about the dangers that lurk online, and monitoring their activities is an essential component to minimizing the risk of inappropriate contact or harmful content being delivered to your child while online.
The Senate recently passed S. 431, commonly known as the KIDS Act (Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators). This legislation requires the registration of email and instant messaging addresses of sex offenders, and placing this information on a sex offender profile maintained by the National Sex Offender Registry. It further requires the Department of Justice to maintain a system whereby social networking sites (such as MySpace, Facebook, and Yahoo!Chat) can compare its registered (or prospective) users information to a list of identifiers of registered sex offenders.
A growing trade in abuse
Panelists at the WSIS meeting expressed growing concerns about the ease with which people who are intent on harming children move between the physical and virtual worlds. It is believed that over one million children are exploited in a global commercial sex trade each year that is estimated to be worth up to USD 20 billion. Meanwhile, child abuse in the virtual world was said to have escalated into a lucrative business.
According to EPCAT, attacks against children through new technologies are “pervasive (and) cause deep and lasting physical and psychological damage.” These attacks include child pornography and “live” online sexual abuse for paying customers, online sexual solicitation, cyber stalking and bullying, and access to illegal and harmful materials. Criminals also use cyberspace to arrange tourism for paedophiles and the trafficking of children.
Although most attention has been on chat rooms as an avenue for sexual predators to target and “groom” young people for later abuse, children are now switching to instant messaging and peer networking technologies, which are even harder to monitor. These file-sharing technologies are also becoming a major tool for traders in sexual images. The meeting heard that the scale and changing forms of online attacks against children are outstripping the existing capacities of legislation and law enforcement agencies, and of society’s understanding of how the technologies work.
More action needed
Greater cooperation is required at the policy-making level and among private sector players. The meeting particularly urged governments, educators, parents and internet companies to act together to prevent this criminal activity. It called on internet service providers and software companies to develop voluntary codes of conduct to prevent abuse, and to make available inexpensive software to block pornography from computers. According to most panelists, tough new laws are needed in many countries to fight abuse. International conventions and global industry standards are also seen as crucial. The Convention on Cybercrime, initiated by the Council of Europe, is one important starting point, as the first binding instrument to deal with child abuse in cyberspace. The Convention is open to all countries of the world.
The KIDS Act makes it a criminal offense for sexual offenders to fail to register their email and instant messaging addresses, subject to fines or imprisonment. The bill also makes it a federal offense for anyone who is at least 18 years of age to “misrepresent their age when communicating over the Internet with the intent to engage in or facilitate criminal sexual contact with a minor.”
Various international projects have been started, to eradicate the bad and to encourage the good in use of the internet.
Police forces are increasingly aware of online exploitation of children. An example of international cooperation in this area is the Virtual Global Taskforce that was created in 2003 as an alliance of Interpol and law enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The taskforce received a 2006 award from the UK Internet Service Providers’ Association, in recognition of its work in making cyberspace safer for children.
Meanwhile, technical solutions too are being offered to parents, through the use of filtering software packages that can block certain types of online content. And various organizations are providing internet portals that are specially designed and monitored to give children safe links to legitimate websites.
An example of action by a private body is Dimdima Kids, (www.dimdima.com), an online children’s magazine from India that also provides safe discussion areas and links to a large amount of material for education and entertainment. Named for the Sanskrit word meaning “drumbeat,” it is operated by a unit of the educational foundation, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In Australia, an instance of public sector action can be seen in the NetAlert Cybersafe Schools programme that has been developed by the country’s internet safety advisory body, NetAlert (www.netalert.net.au). It introduces children at primary and secondary schools to both the potential and the pitfalls of the internet. Small children too are catered for, in the specially designed website “Netty’s World.”
Another growing area of concern is the alarming rise in cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is any act to defame, humiliate, blemish, damage, degrade, denigrate, smear, malign or disgrace another person through online postings, email, text messages or instant messaging. Cyberbullying can take the place of posted pictures or text on a website (or inserted into an email or instant message) or any electronic form of threat, menace, ridicule or inappropriate verbabe (or images) to offend, denigrate, embarrass or humiliate another person.
The threats can range from comments like, “You’re a loser!” to “The only way for you to get respect is to kill yourself!”
The impact of cyberbullying can be devastating. Victims of cyberbullying suffer from embarrassment, depression, a sense of worthlessness, and in severe cases can lead to drug or alcohol abuse and even attempted suicide. In a recent study of 2000 middle school and junior high students, almost 1 in 2 children (grades 6-8) reported being the target of cyberbullying at least once in their short lifetime, and 1 in 5 had received an email or text message with violent, humiliating, or inappropriate content. 1 in 10 were warned not to tell others about the cyberbullying episodes or they (or a friend or family member) would be harmed in fashion.
Nationally 1 in 3 children under the age of 18 have been cyberbullied, and 10% of those have been threatened with physical harm. 16% of children told no one about being cyberbullied, either out of fear or not wanting to involve others in their personal problems. Any type of bullying is harmful, and in some cases it can constitute criminal behavior.
In May 2003, four classmates of Ghyslain Raza found a private video where Ghyslain was pretending to be a Star Wars Jedi Knight. His classmates thought it would be funny to upload the video to the Internet. Within a few short weeks, it had been viewed millions of times by visitors from around the globe. As of August, 2006, Ghyslain is now the most downloaded male on the Internet (the most downloaded femle is Paris Hilton).
Ghyslain’s classmates thought this was funny, and countless spin-offs have found their way to the Internet. The reality for Ghyslain is quite different. Ghyslain was so humiliated and embarrassed by the event he dropped out of high school and finished the year at a faculty specializing in child psychiatry.
In May, 2008, Lori Drew as charged in the US District Court with one count of conspiracy and three counts of computer crime. The indictment alleges that Drew created a MySpace account pretending to be a 16 year old boy named Josh Evans and sent messages to 13 year old Megan Meier, an acquaintance of Drew’s daughter. When the messages started in September, 2006, they were friendly and expressed romantic interest in Meier, but by the next month “Evens” sent Meir a final message saying “The world would be a better place without you.” Shortly thereafter, a distraught Megan hung herself.
If convicted, Drew could serve up to 20 years in prison.
More work needs to be done to stem the growing plague of cyberbullying that has become the bully’s medium of choice in the 21st century, and serves to remind us all that with freedom comes responsibility, and an obligation to look out for those under our care. The Internet offers a wealth of knowledge, resources, games, and entertainment that can (and should) be enjoyed by everyone. However, with the freedom that comes from an unlimited, unregulated communications network also comes the need to be diligent and aware of the dangers that lurk therein.
Numerous resources are now available to help minimize the risk of being victimized online. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Children’s Education Network, the American Family Association, and other worthwhile organizations provide Internet filtering tools. Organizations like these, as well as our own organization, the Kid Safe Network, provide a variety of educational resources to help raise the awareness level of those who are online.
It behooves all families who have children who are online to become cognizant of the dangers that exist on the Internet, and to establish protocols to minimize the risks these dangers present. Simple things like not giving out personal information to anyone online are a good starting point. Having Internet-enabled computers in open living areas where activities can be monitored is another. Utilizing Internet filtering software, antivirus protection and an active firewall on your computer is essential. Being conscious that predators who make contact with children often send prepaid phone cards or prepaid cell phones to prospective victims as part of the “grooming” process and to watch for mail or parcels arriving from unknown sources.
If you detect changes in your child’s demeanor while or after they have been online, ask open ended questions. They may have been the target of a cyberbullying attack or approached by a predator. Children need to know they can talk openly and honestly with their parents without fear of negative or overly emotional reactions. If a child is the target of a cyberbully or predator, they need to be taught to immediately tell a parent or guardian and steps to preserve the communication need to be taken. Law enforcement should also be contacted so the perpetrator can be identified and apprehended.
Most important, talk to your children about the threats they may encounter on the Internet. They will appreciate your honesty and the fact that you showing interest in their welfare and well-being. While they may not fully grasp the seriousness of the threat, your personal input in cautioning your children as to the dangers faced and the fact they can come to you at any time with their concerns helps empower them when online. By establishing online time limits, guidelines for Internet use, and explaining that you as a parent reserve the right to monitor their activities at any time also lays the groundwork for a safer, more enjoyable Internet experience and reduces the risks that your child will be exposed to the “dark side” of the World Wide Web.
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