Friday 17 December 2004

And You'll Believe What They Say...

I was given a presentation the other day called “Empowering Young People to be safe on the Internet”. This was part of the day that I spent in London on Wednesday, and the audience for the presentation was made up entirely of IT professionals who are mentoring a child as part of my work’s mentoring scheme. No children or teachers were in the room. The presenter was some big cheese from my company’s community department.

What did I learn?

- 95% of children ages 15-19 have gone online (The Kaiser Family Foundation 2002)

- The average age of first internet exposure to pornography is 11 years old ( 2003)

- 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed pornography online – most while doing homework ( 2003)

- The number of “hate sites” advocating hate or depicting violence rose from 8,667 at the end of 2003 to 10,296 by the end of April 2004. Hate sites are showing up at a faster rate than pornography (Surfcontrol)

- 15% of young people have received mean or threatening messages while on the internet (i-safe)

- Over 40% of children under the age of 14 with internet access have received invitations from strangers to meet face-to-face (2003 survey conducted by E.KAT.O Austrian Partner LAK)

- 44% of junior high school children (ages 10-14) reported receiving emails with adult content (Warsaw Voice)

- FACT: 66% of online sexual solicitation targets girls (no source quoted)

- FACT: Boys are as likely as girls to be targeted for violence (threats or efforts to humiliate) on the internet (no source quoted)

- 53% of parents say that they have limited ability to shelter their children from inappropriate internet material. 40% do not know a lot about where their children go or what they do when they are online, and of those, 10% know very little or nothing at all about their children’s internet behaviour (no source quoted)

It went on and on like this for over an hour. The speaker slowly worked herself up into a frenzy and concluded by telling us that if we thought this was bad, we should see the presentation that they give to the parents.

I was appalled.

Firstly I had no idea what the hell she thought she was trying to achieve by giving this presentation to a roomful of adults who all work for a technology company. I am 30 years old, and I know my way around the internet thanks very much. You don’t need to try and scare me away from online content.

Secondly (and this is the historian in me), what the hell are those sources? The Warsaw Voice? Some Austrian survey? Vast sweeping generalisations about the numbers of children on the internet (95% of all children aged 15-19? Internet facilities in sub-Saharan Africa must be a whole lot better than I thought then). My personal favourite is that “The number of “hate sites” advocating hate or depicting violence rose from 8,667 at the end of 2003 to 10,296 by the end of April 2004”. Prove it. Presumably in a world where it takes 5 minutes to create and publish a weblog, we are supposed to think that 2000 is a lot of sites and that 8,667 is a vast number? A search for “Race Hate” on google gets over 4m results. You can’t just go to google and take the first statistics you find as fact, you know. Any sensible 14 year old could tell you that. Von Ranke was wrong. There is no such thing as a fact.

And of course, as Vic Reeves said, 89.9% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

Lastly, and I think worst of all, is the tone of the presentation. The internet can be a dangerous place for children. It is all too easy to accidentally stumble across content that you would not want to put in front of a child. We all know that not everybody is who they say they are. We’ve all heard the stories. What we also know is that the internet is an amazing resource. For the dissemination of knowledge, it may just be the single biggest step-forward since the printing press (yeah ok, maybe radio has a claim). What pissed me off was that here we have a presentation that makes no mention of the positive aspects of the internet and the benefits it can have to a child’s education, and instead chooses to pass out a Daily Mail message about what an evil and dangerous place it is and how we must protect our children from it.

There are threats, and children can be vulnerable if they aren’t supervised. But this is as true in the real world as it is online. You can be bullied in the playground as well as in chat rooms. You can talk to strangers in the street as well as online. Not a single word was spoken about things you can do to protect your child online, about sensible, common-sense steps you can take to make the whole thing that little bit more secure.

Dreadful. If this presentation is given to parents, then I’m pretty sure they would abandon the internet altogether, and if that happened I think we would be doing our kids a disservice.

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