Potential danger of online friendships highlighted

31 Jul 2006

Many Irish children say their experience of the internet has been positive but for a small number, people they met in person after meeting them through the web caused them harm.

The news comes as concern increases over children’s use of social networking websites and online chatrooms.

The findings come from a survey on internet usage among 9-16 year olds in Ireland, carried out by the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) site Webwise for the Department of Education and Science. A total of 848 children across 21 urban and rural schools were polled for the survey.

Early media reports seized on the fact that 11pc of the children surveyed said that the person they met up with tried to physically hurt them. According to the survey, a number of children reported that a person they were communicating with over the web had passed themselves off as a child online but who turned out to be an adult.

To put the findings in perspective, one child in 14 met someone face to face that they had first met online. Of that group, 11pc met someone who subsequently tried to hurt them physically or who subjected them to verbal abuse, representing less than 1pc of overall survey respondents. In all cases where verbal or physical abuse took place, an adult was involved: there were no instances of children attacking each other after having first met on the internet.

Simon Grehan, internet safety project officer with the NCTE, commented: “Overall, our perspective is that [the internet] is a part of children’s lives these days but the other side to it is that there are risks and we have to accept that.” Speaking to siliconrepublic.com, he said he was not surprised at the findings and pointed out that the figures were in some cases slightly better than for similar surveys carried out in the UK and Norway.

Among the other findings of the survey are: all children use PCs, with almost 40pc claiming to own their own PC; 96pc have used the internet; a quarter of the children surveyed said they used the internet at home every day and just over half (52pc) use it at least once a week at school.

Compared with findings from a similar poll in 2003, the survey showed a small increase in the number of children that have visited hateful websites, 26pc in 2006, up from 22pc in 2003. Boys were three times more likely than girls to have visited hate sites a lot. The numbers of children that have visited pornographic websites remained stable at 35pc.

Almost a quarter of respondents (23pc) said they received unwanted sexual comments on the internet. Boys are twice as likely as girls to receive them a lot.

Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin TD said that children’s experience of the internet was very positive from a learning and educational point of view. However, she added that a more worrying aspect was that many parents are not fully aware of the dangers posed by some of the technology. More than 50pc of children said that their parents spoke with them very rarely or not at all about what they did on the internet.

Jerome Morrissey, director of the NCTE, said the survey findings have implications for parental supervision and monitoring of children’s appropriate use of ICT. “Effective age-verification and moderation strategies could be implemented by online services which would allow young people to meet and communicate with others online with a greater degree of safety,” he added.

By Gordon Smith