The silver bullet for social networking fears

25 Feb 2008

Intelligent technological solutions being developed by sites like Bebo represent the silver bullet when it comes to parent’s fears over not only what their children are doing on social networking sites but also what content they are exposed to, says Dr Rachel O’Connell, forensic psychologist and chief safety officer for Bebo.

In a social networking seminar which took place in Dublin on Friday and was aimed at educating parents on the concepts surrounding these type of sites used by their children, experts including Dr O’Connell fielded questions by concerned parents on issues such as identity theft, internet privacy and peer influence.

The technology put in place by Bebo can pick up on inappropriate images submitted to the site and have them taken down rapidly, explained Dr O’Connell.

While cyberbullying is a hot topic amongst parents and educators, Dr O’Connell told it is simply not true that it is easier for children or young adults to target someone online while hiding behind their computer screen.

Websites like Bebo record IP addresses from where the user logs in and can use this to trace the cyber-bully, she explained, adding that no one is invisible online.

However, the overriding issue of most concern to parents appeared to be the question of what advertisers on sites like Bebo and Facebook were exposing their children to, in terms of age inappropriate ads such as those for adult dating sites.

Dr O’Connell said advertising on Bebo was directed at users based on their age. 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,” said John Carr, an international expert on social networking who advises the UK government on this area.

While there was debate over how this could be implemented, Cormac Callenan, ex-secretary general for INHOPE, the association for internet hotline providers, said this kind of system was currently in place in Germany.

Buying products from the internet, such as pharmaceuticals, knives and other goods which require the purchaser to be over 18, can only be done after entering a code obtained from the local post office on presentation of an age card, explained Callenan.

Carr also raised the issue of age verification and monitoring versus over-restriction: “Can you create a bubble environment? The online environment is meant to be an open world where children can essentially take ‘safe risks’.”

“If you end up on a site that both your mother and your priest approve of, you will wonder ‘what am I doing wrong?'”

By Marie Boran