A lack of awareness about the dangers of online chat rooms has resulted in an unacceptable threat to South African children. A recent pilot study, entitled The dangers of the South African chat room environment, discovered that it is far too easy for under-age internet users to gain access to a highly sexualised chat room environment.
In addition, categorisation of content into age-appropriate bands has not been applied effectively to the online environment, including the advertising of adult services.
The report was commissioned by Parentscorner.org.za, an online child safety initiative, and was carried out during August and September 2011. The findings are based on more than 200 chats in a variety of South African online chat rooms, focussing on real-time, anonymous chats.
The study found that 65% of the chats discussed sex and sexual favours; a third of the chatters initiated cyber-sex; a quarter asked for a photograph; and 22.5% wanted to meet in person.
The research also revealed that advertised age-restrictions were not adequately enforced; terms and conditions were difficult to find and not included as part of the registration process; under-age chatters were not removed from the chat rooms; few chat rooms had an easy accessible ‘report abuse’ process; and content was often inappropriate for the advertised age limit.
In addition, thanks to lack of advertising guidelines equivalent to those which exist in the offline world, these chat rooms were marketed and advertised on platforms easily accessible to children.
These results highlight an alarming security risk for childrenIt is inevitable that security frameworks lag technological development, but parents need to be aware of these dangers, and industry organisations and the government need to tighten up on out-dated regulations and legislation in order to protect South African children. Current legislation only places restrictions on chat rooms that are specifically targeted at children. Legislation is needed regarding the advertising of adult chat rooms and the measures required preventing children from accessing these.
Until then, here are some ways that parents can keep their children safe online:
1.Discuss the potential dangers and what is considered appropriate behaviour online, in the same way you would in the offline world. Reassure your child that inappropriate behaviour from an adult is never their fault and that they can safely tell you if they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable.
2.Make it clear which information they should never share online, which links they shouldn’t click on and how to identify spam and viruses.
3.Place your family computer in a public place and install child protection software on it.
4.Learn about the various online platforms your children are using. If they are on Facebook, for instance, a condition should be that you are their Facebook friend.
5.Report any potential child pornography that is sent to your child to the police.
6.Remember that these considerations apply equally to the mobile phone.
Once the research was completed, the chat rooms in question were given the opportunity to respond to the findings. Some have already made changes to better protect children, others pointed out technological constraints preventing them from doing so, while others unfortunately brushed off the concerns. This is a clear indication that better awareness of services could mitigate risks, but ultimately appropriate legislation is required.
Given SMS and instant messaging popularity among children, more research will also need to be undergone to investigate the dangers of mobile chat rooms.
Dr Pieter Streicher is the founder of ParentsCorner.org.za and MD of BulkSMS.