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Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Forum: ls the internet a safe place for children?

On the day that internet child abuser Patrick Green was sentenced to five years in prison, a website has been launched to alert parents to the dangers of online chat rooms.

Nigel Williams is founder and director of Childnet International, the internet charity behind the new site.

Through Childnet he hopes to promote and protect the interests of children and wants to see a specialist national computer crime unit set up to combat abuse.

But is the internet really a safe place for children? Will it ever be possible to regulate it and protect against abuse? And do the benefits of the internet for young people really outweigh the risks involved?

The BBC's Alison Holt put your questions on children and the internet to campaigner Nigel Williams.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


Sanjay, Leicester: How do you stop someone who is sexually interested in children from entering a children's chat room? What if they don't use any inappropriate language that might give them away?

Nigel Williams: I think that we've got to make a distinction between chat rooms that are moderated, that means there's a referee, someone who's watching the exchanges and those that are unmoderated where anything goes. If the chat room is moderated, the advice still has to be if we can't stop paedophiles pretending to be children, we have to tell children not to give out their e-mail address or other personal information.

John, Devon, UK: I've got kids and worry constantly about what they might come across on the internet....I find the only way to protect them is to keep the family computer in the study and not in their bedrooms so we can keep an eye on what they're doing. What more can parents do?

Nigel Williams: Firstly, I feel that you've taken the most important step of all. Keep the computer in a family room and not in a private one. That will mean that when children are using a computer they are much less likely to do things that their parents don't want them to see. Parents also need to be more involved with their children and what they get up to on the computer.

Frances, Birmingham: I'm 14 and find the internet really useful with my school work and catching up with my chat rooms are a really fab way of making friends in different countries... if you guys start clamping down on what we can and can't see on the internet that's going to make it not as much fun and restrict the amount of stuff we can search for in terms of school projects etc.

Nigel Williams: I agree with you one hundred percent. We at Childnet are committed to the valuable things that the internet can do for kids and we're not wanting to clamp down in that sense. Each year we run an awards programme where we invite those under eighteen and those working with children from all over the world to contribute things that they are doing online. What we are saying is just as there are strangers in the offline world who you want to avoid, the same occurs in the online world.

Dominic Price, UK: It will never really be possible to regulate the internet and there's certainly no way of checking that people are who they say they are, in chat rooms, so shouldn't we keep these as adult-only areas?

Nigel Williams: I don't think so, Dominic. As I mentioned to Frances, chat can be a lot of fun for kids and tremendously valuable. If you're in a classroom here in the UK and talking to children on the other side of the world in Australia through chat - what other way could you afford to do this? However, we need to recognise that we've got to try and make this safer for kids.

Jacqueline Moore, Belfast: It's all very way saying that parents should be involved in regulating what their children are up to online but as the mother of two teenagers, I wonder just how realistic this is.

Nigel Williams: I think it is realistic. As we said earlier, you should have the computer in a room where the rest of the family are and take an interest in what they're doing. Just as you gradually allow your teenagers more freedom in the offline world, so you do the same in the online world. Parenting is challenging and there are no easy answers.

Cathy, Bristol: Is there any way of grading internet sites, the way they do movies? Or is there another system that could be used?

Nigel Williams: Yes there is. Childnet has been involved in an international effort to put forward a common system of labelling web sites which states what the content is. This allows parents to set in their browsers what they want to see and is similar to that used with videos.

Kevin Walker, UK: I am setting up a web site for a school where I am a governor. Do you have any advice on what I can put on the site and what I should avoid?

Nigel Williams: I think you should avoid putting on personal information about the children including e-mail addresses and individual photographs. It's fine to have group photos - children love to see themselves on the web. You should certainly avoid having an open chat site, although that's going to be a challenge to achieve initially. Stick to the broad, general interests of the children but don't personally identify them.

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See also:

18 Oct 00 | UK
Net police incur BT charges
14 Sep 00 | UK
The end of the internet?
26 Apr 00 | UK
Chat room danger warning
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