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Net safety ads star on big screen

Hard-hitting advertisements calling for children to wise up to the dangers of Internet pedophiles are screened for the first time in the United Kingdom.

3 min read
By Wendy McAuliffe

Hard-hitting advertisements calling for children to wise up to the dangers of Internet pedophiles were screened for the first time in the United Kingdom on Wednesday.

The safety messages, which depict an actor posing as a pedophile, will be aired at U.K. cinemas, on commercial radio stations and in teen magazines early in the new year.

The "thinkuknow" campaign was unveiled by Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes at the Warner Bros. cinema in Leicester Square. With $2.18 million (1.5 million pounds) of new government funding, the advertisements are designed to educate children in the sophisticated methods pedophiles use to meet children online. Each carries a warning against young people handing out their personal details to people that they have met on the Internet.

Central to the advertisements is the message that "People online may not be who they say they are. Pedophiles use the Internet. Don't give out your e-mail, mobile or other personal details."

Launching the campaign, Hughes said: "People wanting to gain access to children are becoming very experienced at using Internet chat rooms...But the dangers might be less obvious to children, and they aren't applying the same rules that make sense to them in the real world to the virtual world."

The Internet Taskforce on Child Protection, chaired by Hughes, recently commissioned an investigation into children's attitudes toward Internet safety. It made the unnerving discovery that most young people see the Internet as "safe;" they also think themselves to be in control because they are Net savvy and can turn the computer off if confronted with an unpleasant situation.

"Girls especially think that they can detect who a pedophile is--this campaign will shake them into being more alert," said Dr Ute Navidi, at Childline. "Both sexes are at risk, and we need to dent their confidence a bit."

The advertisements were directed by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing. Within the film, a man is depicted speaking with the voice of a child, to reinforce the intelligent disguises that pedophiles can use on the Internet.

"The adverts demonstrate powerfully how someone can use the same language that you would expect a child to use," said Hughes. "You make assumptions about who you are talking to online, but those can be completely wrong."

The taskforce has also received policy approval for an anti-grooming order, which will make it a criminal offence for pedophiles to solicit children in Internet chat rooms, while additionally containing a civil order to protect children from an adult making contact with them online for a harmful purpose.

Under the new order, "grooming" would refer to a course of conduct that includes communication with a child, where the offender establishes a degree of confidence and friendship with the child, with the intention of meeting them offline. It now seems likely that this order will be included in a general sex offences bill; it is hoped to be presented as a "white paper" this summer and included in the second session of Parliament.

Further priorities for the taskforce include setting up a "clearinghouse" for handling serious reports relating to Internet pedophilia. The portal would be a one-stop shop for complaints and would help to clear confusion over where parents and children should go with problems. There are also plans for training to be provided to local police forces so that officers can respond to Internet-related crime effectively.

Staff writer Wendy McAuliffe reported from London.