28 Apr 2008

The internet may be the greatest technological breakthrough of our age but with all great advances come misuse and abuse.

When it comes to the internet and social networking, parents’ No 1 fear, and their greatest misconception, is that their child is being lured by a sexual predator or bullied by their peers.

While these are very legitimate concerns, they are only the tip of the iceberg, says Luison Lassala, director of Anchor Youth Centre in Dublin and a freelance IT consultant.

What lies beneath? “Exposure to commercial pressures or exploitation, whatever you want to call it,” says Simon Grehan, internet safety project officer with the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE).

“This is one of the biggest concerns for support groups that the NCTE works with.”

More specifically, parents are concerned about premium SMS services which target children through social networking sites.

“There is one on Bebo that allows your friends to send you messages directly to your phone but costs €3 per week.

“If you want to unsubscribe, you text ‘stop’ like other text services but if you look at the advertisement for this service on Bebo, it says ‘free’ all over it.”

Premium SMS services like this do state the service costs money and must be unsubscribed to. However, it is a caveat emptor situation: the conditions are stated in the small print that children may not read.

“While this is not illegal, it can be very misleading. More often than not, kids will not stop to read the small print and end up getting this cost taken from their credit each week,” explains Grehan.

This kind of service will play on a child’s naivety or reluctance to ask a parent for help because they signed up for the service without permission in the first place.

“What happens is they think, ‘Well, if I don’t put any more credit onto my phone, I’ll get out of it that way’, but what happens is that when they put their €20 credit back onto their phone two weeks later, this service will take the money owed for the intervening couple of weeks,” says Grehan.

Such services do big business in Ireland as many children use prepaid or credit phones and can avail of the services without parental permission.

Another pressing concern on social networking sites is contextual advertising. Under Section 19 of the Broadcasting Act 2001, there is a clear code of advertising relating to special protection for children. However, this protects children mostly in relation to television advertising standards.

The Home Office in the UK recently published a set of voluntary guidelines for providers of social networking services like Bebo and Facebook which include provisions for advertising. But these are only recommendations that “strongly urge” these companies to comply and are not legally binding.

A recent social networking seminar hosted in Dublin by focused on child safety and was attended by parents and children’s groups.

While panel members, including Bebo safety officer Dr Rachel O’Connell, fielded questions and concerns ranging from cyberbullying to identity theft, one of the biggest fears voiced was that children are being exposed to inappropriate advertising while on sites like Bebo and MySpace.

One parent claimed that typing in keywords like ‘alcohol’ or ‘drugs’ within Bebo brought up links to myriad unsuitable and sometimes adult sites.

While most of these keywords did not bring up such results for this writer, there was one sponsored result linking to an online pharmacy selling Valium and Viagra.

O’Connell said advertising on Bebo, which is provided by Yahoo!, was directed at users based on their age and that once logged in, an under-18 should not be exposed to unsuitable advertisements.

However, there is no way of proving someone registering for one of these sites is in fact the age they claim to be.

“Age verification is absolutely inevitable and absolutely desirable,” says John Carr, an international expert on social networking who advises the UK Government on this area.

Social networking sites like Club Penguin and GirlSense, which are aimed at pre-teens, can often be a bigger worry than Bebo or Facebook, says Lassala.

These sites are free to register and use but offer the facility to buy digital accessories for online personas or characters.

Club Penguin, says Lasalla, lets a child choose a penguin character for free which he or she uses to interact with other children. But most children will then want to buy accessories like hats and scarves for their penguin.

The site lets children pay for these accessories via the credit on their mobile phones, something Lasalla reckons many parents are completely unaware of.

The key message the NCTE, Lasalla and MakeITSecure want to get across? Get comfortable with the social networking sites your children are using and engage with them.

A recent survey by iReach found 21pc of parents have not given their children any basic rules or guidelines concerning online threats.

By Marie Boran