Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Searching for Intimacy

Lydon Bowring

The challenge of young people coming into contact with a stranger in an unmoderated chat room, and in which pornography was exchanged, came home to Childnet in 2000 when out of the blue we received an email direct to the office from a father who wrote:

‘My daughter was contacted starting in February this year by a paedophile whilst using a chat room. He quickly moved to email and shortly afterwards sent her pornography, purporting to be pictures of himself. My daughter was just 12 at this time. After grooming her for some weeks, he made telephone contact and eventually persuaded her to miss school and meet him. In total, he met her five times and took her back to his flat where she was sexually abused….I have worked in the computer industry for 18 years, latterly with the Internet, and had no idea what went on in these chat rooms. Surely there is some regulatory body that can make the ISPs monitor at least the teenage chat rooms to make sure kids aren’t in danger. Perhaps you can offer some guidance?’

The result of the email and meeting with the parents was that Childnet launched on the steps of the courthouse on the day in which the perpetrator in this case, who was caught by the police, was sentenced. The site generated huge media interest and showcased a way in which the Internet could help educate and inform at a time of public anxiety. However, not everyone agreed with our approach. Someone in America ‘webjacked’ the site and potential viewers who mistakenly typed were instead sent to a porn site. We also got criticism from some in the industry who felt we were being too negative.

The website was written with the full support of the family and aimed to tell the girl’s story in a sensitive, dignified way. Over the last three years we have received over three thousand emails through the site’s online contact form and have been able to respond personally to hundreds of parents and children who have concerns, giving them advice and reassurance. The website also helped mobilise our challenge to both government and the industry to review how children were exposed by these new interactive services. In part the campaign helped mobilise the establishment of a Home Office Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet, of which Childnet is a leading member. This group in turn challenged the government in their review of the Sexual Offences Act to introduce a new criminal offence of online grooming which has now been included. Childnet has also been active in lobbying the chat service providers to take steps to make chat rooms more child-safe and we welcomed MSN’s decision in 2003 to withdraw their chat services.

From section 3 of Searching for Intimacy – pornography, the internet and the XXX factor, published by Authentic Media 2005
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