journal for the self-obsessed generation


Abuse the experts

Recently there was another incident in which a teenager was sexually abused by an older man she'd met on Internet chat, and been enticed to visit.

What worried me most about the case is the obsessive media overreaction. On national radio, I heard this line:

'Experts say that you should never agree to meet anybody you know from an Internet chat room.'

Obviously, they are referring to children and not adults; even so, this position is ludicrous.

First, the paranoia is unjustified: Internet chat is relatively very, very safe (there have been perhaps a few dozen incidents like this one, in the entire world, ever; 90% of child abuse is committed by parents or relatives of the child, and of the other 10%, a very small proportion is related to Internet chat).

Second, based on a few cases like this one in which no security precautions at all were taken, these so-called 'experts' are suggesting that it is never safe to meet anyone you know from Internet chat. That's like saying that nobody should ever drive, after a handful of people around the world were killed when they drove without a license in a car that wasn't properly maintained.

I've been involved in Internet chat (via the DALnet IRC network) for more than five years. I've occasionally held positions of responsibility in the network. I'm the developer of a major shareware IRC client program, leafChat.

This is a very important aspect of my life. I met all my best friends online; some incredible, wonderful people. And I've seen first-hand the harm that is caused by Internet paranoia.

Imagine you're a teenager. Imagine your best friend is online. Imagine you finally have the chance to meet them (maybe they're coming to a nearby city), and this might be the only chance for a year or so.

Now imagine your parents won't let you, under any circumstances, because they heard 'experts' claim that it wasn't safe.

How would that make you feel?

I'd like to see some more responsible reporting of the facts, and some more responsible advice.

If you are a parent, concerned about your teenage child's safety, there are some simple guidelines you can follow when your child wants to meet an online friend for the first time. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Make sure you have real-world contact details (address, phone) of the friend.
  • Phone his or her parents beforehand just to check everything's okay.
  • Encourage meeting in groups, rather than alone (most online communities will organise group meetings every so often, though those might not be nearby), and in busy public places, rather than private homes.
  • If possible, travel to the meeting with your child, so that you can make sure their friend is really who they say. (That doesn't mean you have to hang around, getting in the way, for the entire time.)
  • Be sure your child understands that, if they find anything wrong, they leave and call you immediately.

This isn't rocket science. Following a few of these simple guidelines (or maybe others, I wasn't exhaustive) can ensure that a meeting is safe. All you are trying to do is ensure that the friend is who they say they are - mostly this means checking that they're 15, not 35. It's simply not that difficult. And it's going to become more and more important as more of life moves onto the Internet.

Don't deprive your child of the chance to meet their friends, because of your own media-fuelled paranoia.

And, if you ever encounter one of these rent-a-quote 'experts', please tell them from me to fuck right off.


ps Sorry. First update in years and it's a rant. But it had to be said...