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Report: Keeping tabs on social networking sites

Crave's Ingrid Marson went to a law enforcement workshop on how to make social networking sites safer for children. Here's her report on what the issues are, and what police officers, parents and teachers are calling for...

You'd be forgiven for assuming that the risks of social networking sites have been exaggerated, with isolated cases of paedophiles grooming children blown out of proportion. But, as I learnt at a workshop held by UK law enforcement agency, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), the problem is very real and likely to grow as more kids start using them.

The event was attended by a mixed crowd -- teachers, police officers, charity workers, parents and representatives of myriad associations linked to the education or law enforcement sectors.

Almost every person at the event had an anecdotal tale to tell -- from the police officer who had dealt with cases where paedophiles had used the Internet to make contact with victims, to the parent who had discovered an instant messenger conversation between her young daughter and an older stranger and wasn't sure what to do about it, to the teacher who had discovered that children were playing "pass the perv" -- passing on their friend's contact details to get rid of someone they felt uncomfortable chatting to.

Hugh Davies, a barrister who has prosecuted various cases where paedophiles have groomed victims they met on Web sites (including the recent case brought against Jonathan Vai), warned that the Internet makes it easier for paedophiles to groom children and avoid detection.

"In the past, paedophiles had to groom children locally and the probability of detection was higher," Davies said, speaking at the event on Wednesday. "With social networking sites or chatrooms, children are groomed online. The paedophile will travel away from their home ground and often the child will feel pressured to engage in contact, and feel embarrassed afterwards, so they don't report it. Social networking sites will promote these kinds of meetings -- there's no question about it."

Davies also spoke of the risk of harassment and bullying online. He questioned the fact that some sites, such as MySpace, allow people to rank other users. "This seems to me a recipe for bullying between friends. What's the advantage in having such a ranking system?" he said.

Other attendees also spoke of the problems with bullying, saying that it was particularly damaging for children because of its anonymity, which meant that the child wouldn't know who had perpetrated it and therefore would lose trust in their friends and classmates. The fact that it happened online also meant that there was no escape from it, with it happening around the clock. One attendee told how someone had hacked into his son's site and deleted all their personal information and files, causing a great deal of distress to his son.

The attendees brainstormed potential solutions to the problems of grooming and bullying. Educating children to not give out personal information online and to be wary of strangers making contact, was one of the key solutions that attendees discussed. The education of parents and teachers was also thought to be important. The CEOP already plans to offer training to school liaison officers and those who have responsibility for e-safety within local authorities, so that secondary school children across the country can receive training.

Attendees were also keen for social networking sites to introduce various safeguards to better protect children, including forcing people to read the safety advice during the sign-up process, regular newsletters warning of the potential dangers, changing default settings so that profiles are private by default, and automatically deleting any personal information, such as email addresses and phone numbers, that is written on the profile page.

For more information on how to make sure your child stays safe when using social networking sites, check out CNET.co.uk's safety tips. -Ingrid Marson