What is the "Internet"?
The Internet provides unlimited opportunities for education, entertainment and for "meeting" and communicating with people all over the world. It has contracted the world but expanded our horizons. For more and more people in all parts of the world, the Internet is a part of daily life at work, at home and at play.
In today’s world, "never leave home without it" refers more to your computer "laptop" than your credit card! For children, the Internet offers extraordinary opportunities for creative learning, information and for communicating with their peers in different parts of the world, thus strengthening pluralism and cultural diversity. But the Internet also provides opportunities for criminal activities and puts children at considerable risk of becoming victims of paedophiles and child molesters. Children with unsupervised access to the Internet and without advice and guidance on "Internet Safety" are most at risk.
Information technology, which includes computers, mobile cellular phones and television, has changed our world. It has expanded our horizons in an increasingly contracting world. It is as if we now have two "worlds": the real world, which is referred to as the "off-line" world, and a "virtual" or "cyber world", which is the "on-line" world. Almost anything you do in the real, off-line world, you could do in the “cyber” on-line world. Without leaving your home, you can do your banking, pay your bills, do your shopping, chat with your friends, watch movies, play games, and commit crimes through this "on-line" world. And all this is possible because of the Internet.
This on-line "cyber" world consists of hundreds of thousands of computers and millions of computer-users. Computers are store-houses of information. All together, the information in this "cyber" world consists of almost the entire store of human knowledge. And it is the Internet which makes it possible for anyone to access and use this vast storehouse of knowledge – use the knowledge for good or for evil.
The Internet is an "information highway" that leads to networks of computers that are "networked" or linked to each other through "servers".
By using a "search engine", like Google, you can access information and make contact and communicate with people all over the world. You can send instant messages, chat in real-time, send and receive pictures, play games and even work – all at, literally, the touch of a button.
Because the Internet is an "information highway" leading to all the vast information and knowledge stored on computers throughout the world, it provides unprecedented opportunities for education and entertainment. But, like the off- line world, it also provides opportunities for crime and poses just as many risks to your children. Just as children are taught to be "street smart" to recognise dangers and avoid risks in the real world, they have to be "cyber smart" to recognise and avoid the dangers when in the on-line world.
Roads or "motor highways" pose dangers to children. But we do not stop our children from using roads. We teach them how to use roads safely.
In the same way, we should not tell children not to use the Internet. We need to show them how to use this "information highway" safely. Roads, streets and motorways are part of our environment. The Internet is now just as much a part of our environment and children are growing up with this "information highway" as an important part of their normal lives. In fact, the Internet is a critical tool to your child’s development in today’s world because, today, it is no longer the "survival of the fittest" but the "survival of the informed".
How do pedophiles and child molesters use the Internet?
There are four main ways that those who want to abuse children use to contact and communicate with your child:
- Web sites
- Chat room
- Instant messaging
A web site is like a library created by, for instance, individuals, organisations, businesses and educational institutions, which holds all kinds of information which anyone can access. The Film and Publication Board has a web site which you can visit by typing www.fpb.gov.za in a search engine on your computer. The web sites will then "open" and you can then see all the information that the Board has "posted" on its web site. If you want to know the rating of a film classified by the Board, for example, you can go to the Board’s web site and find that information.
Most web sites contain useful and informative information. However, there are web sites which contain materials which are disturbing and harmful to children. There are thousands of pornographic web sites which contain pornographic pictures, including child pornography or child abuse images. Your child must be protected from being exposed to such pictures because of the impact such pictures might have on the normal development of your child.
E-mail, which means "electronic mail", works like telephones but instead of speaking, you write or "text" messages which are then sent, almost instantly, to the person to whom you addressed that message – anywhere in the world, as long as that person has a computer and an e-mail address. If you have an e-mail address, you can also receive message from any person who has your e-mail address. You can also send and receive pictures through your e-mail address.
A chat room is a "room" in the "cyber" world which is like a room in the real world. It is not a physical room but it is like a physical room in the sense that you cannot enter a chat room unless you have a password, which is like a key, to let you enter that room. The person who created that chat room and manages it can either allow or prevent you from entering it. A chat room provides a space in which people from any part of the world can "meet" and "talk" to each other, share and exchange information by typing messages or "texting". The message you "text" can be seen by all the people who "entered" that chat room on their computer screens. However, a chat room also provides a facility to allow two people to have a private "conversation", so that nobody else in that chat room can "listen in" to what is being said or discussed in private.
People use "nick" or "screen" names, usually referred to as your "handle", when in a chat room. Because you don’t see the person in a chat room but only "talk" through typed-messages ("texting"), it is impossible to know the real identities or ages or genders of persons you "meet" in a cat room. "Nice Guy" may enter a chat room and pretend that he is a 15- year old schoolboy wanting to make friends with others of his age group, especially females, when, in fact, "Nice Guy" is a 55-year old paedophile seeking out his next child-victim.
Paedophiles and child molesters do not enter chat rooms to "chat" with others. They use chat rooms as "hunting grounds" to find child-victims. They enter a chat room, "listen" to what is being said, identify a child of the age and sex they want to sexually abuse, check that child’s profile to gain further information and then begin a "conversation" with that child, hoping to entice that child into an off-line meeting.
Instant messaging is a way of exchanging text or typed messages with a person, or even a group, over the Internet, and is similar to sending SMS messages by using a mobile cellular phone. ICQ ("I seek you"), for example, is a programme which you can install on your computer and through which you can check who is on-line so that you can contact them by sending a typed message. ICQ also allows you to chat, send and receive pictures and exchange files and information.
What are the risks to children using the Internet?
There are two main risks to children using the Internet: Internet contact and Internet content.
Your child cannot see the person at the other end of the computer and cannot, therefore, know if that person is male or female or young or old. Your child has no way knowing if that person is who he says he is and could very well be a paedophile or child molester looking for his next child-victim, posing as a child of the same age as your child. There is no way of knowing what the intention of that person is and what his interests are in your child. The paedophile will try to strike up a friendship with your child and by asking a few seemingly- innocent questions and pretending to share the same interests and hobbies as your child, gain your child’s confidence and eventually suggest an off-line meeting.
Paedophiles use simple questions to try and gain information which they will use to try and physically locate your child. How old are you? How tall are you? Which school do you go to? Do you play any sports? Do you practice every day? Where do you practice? What is your favourite colour? Let us see what information the paedophile has obtained by asking such simple questions:
- Which school your child attends
- Your child’s height
- Your child’s favourite sport
- The day when your child goes to sports practice
- The place where your child goes to practice, and
- Your child’s favourite colour.
Almost enough information for a paedophile to construct an overall picture of your child. The opportunity for physically locating and meeting up with your child is made easier by seemingly-innocent bits of information.
The Internet, especially when it is accessed from the comfort of a home, can give a child a false sense of security. A child is, therefore, more likely to be seduced into giving out personal information and even contact details to complete strangers, without realising that they are, unwittingly, exposing themselves to risks.
In terms of percentages, content that is potentially disturbing, harmful or inappropriate for children, may account for less than 5% of the total information available on the Internet. However, the likelihood that your child might stumble across materials, especially images, that may be totally unsuitable or even disturbing and harmful, is far greater than the likelihood that your child would stumble across educational or informative materials. Purveyors of pornography make use of every available opportunity and trick to spread their disgusting materials as widely as possible. Even if your child is not "surfing" the Internet for pornography, a simple misplaced letter in a word could open a pornographic web site. Pornography comes looking for Internet users!
Pornography is not the only content that your child might be exposed to unwittingly. Violent and racist materials are also harmful to children and there are many web sites devoted to such materials.
What you can do to protect your child from Internet predators?
Learn to recognise warning signs
If your child-
- spends long hours on the Internet, especially in the evenings
- receives calls from people you don’t know or is making calls to numbers you don’t recognise
- receives gifts or mail from people you have never met or know to be friends of your child
- does not join in family activities but prefers to spend more time with a computer
- is not open to discussing her or his Internet activities with you
- turns off the computer or changes the screen quickly when anyone comes within "seeing" distance of the computer screen
- prefers to be alone when using the computer
- is, in some recognisable or visible way, behaving differently from the way he or she used to behave when not spending as much time on the computer, or, more distressingly
- you find pornography on your child’s computer
- you have reasons to be concerned that your child may be in contact with someone who could turn out to be an Internet predator, "grooming" your child on-line in the hope of arranging a meeting off-line.
Try to understand a little about the Internet, chat rooms and the language of chat rooms ("chat lingo")
This site cannot provide you with a "crash course" on the Internet, chat rooms or "chat lingo". But there are sources of information and the Internet itself is an excellent source. Some understanding of "chat lingo" is essential. For instance, if you see your child typing a message that reads "BRBPAW", you should be suspicious because that means "I will be right back because my parents are watching". A message that reads "Btw RU VGL" means "By the way, are you very good looking". You should be very concerned if you see "PM ASL" because that means "Private Message. What is your age, sex and location?"
Remember that your child probably knows a lot more about computers than you. Even to understand what your child tells you when you ask about his or her Internet activities requires some knowledge of computers, the Internet, search engines, chat rooms, e-mails and "chat lingo". Your child’s physical, emotional and psychological security and well-being is worth making the little effort to understand what the Internet is all about. As the Constitution makes clear, the child’s best interest is paramount in all matters concerning the child.
Monitor your child’s use of the computer
Your child is entitled to privacy and is a "beneficiary" of the constitutional right to freedom of expression. However, that right to privacy and freedom of expression stops when there is a real risk of harm to your child. More than a moral obligation, you have a legal obligation to protect your child from harm or even the risk of harm.
Denying your child the use of a computer and access to the Internet is not the answer. The Internet is, in today’s world, probably the most important source for educational information, as well as for safe and exciting entertainment. What you should do is teach your child how to maximise the positive benefits of the Internet without the risk of becoming a victim of Internet predators. The Internet is not a "baby sitter" to be used completely unsupervised by your child. Your child must know the risks posed by the Internet and how to avoid such risks without losing out on all the good and valuable information and entertainment that is to be found on the Internet. There are computer programmes available which will let you check, for example, the e-mails your child may be exchanging, or chat room transcripts, instant messaging transcripts and web sites visited. You must, as every concerned parent should, create a balance between your child’s right to privacy and your obligation to protect your child from risk of harm.
Summary of useful tips
Train your child to be "cyber smart" so that they can recognise potential dangers and know how to avoid threatening situations. Talk to your children about sexual victimisation and the use of the Internet, especially chat rooms, by paedophiles and child molesters looking for child victims. Encourage your children to tell you if they receive messages which make them feel uncomfortable or threatened, especially messages of a sexual nature.
Remember that your child might have access to the Internet outside your home, such as in a school or library or a friend’s home or even the mobile cellular phone. The more your children know and understand about being "cyber smart", the safer their exploration of the Internet. Your supervision of your children’s daily lives to ensure their safety in the real off-line world must apply equally to their lives in the on-line "cyber world".
Spend time with your children when they are on-line and ask them to tell you about what they are doing and what they enjoy about the Internet. Show interest in their Internet activities. And if your child has ever been involved in any form of on-line sexual exploitation, even if willingly, make sure she/he understands that it is not her/his fault and that she/he is the a victim of unscrupulous abusers of the Internet.
Make sure your child’s computer is in a room used by the family and not in the child’s bedroom. Internet predators would not be so keen to attempt to groom your child if they know that the computer screen is visible to every person in the household.
Install filtering software in computers used by your children. Filtering software can be programmed to block access to web sites that contain materials to which children should not be exposed. However, you must know that filtering software does not provide a hundred percent guarantee that your child would not stumble across unsuitable materials. It is a useful complement to all the other measures that you would need to take to ensure that your child is safe on the Internet. Filtering software may be downloaded from the Internet. It is useful to talk to your Internet service provider or to someone who knows about filtering and parental control programmes. (You can find a directory of filtering software programmes at www.getnetwise.org/tools. You can get more information about filtering and blocking software atwww.pin.org.uk/filtering.)
You can also talk to your Internet service provider about rating systems that rely on web site operators to indicate the nature of the materials on their web sites. Internet browsers can be configured to allow children to visit only web sites that are rated at a level that are suitable for children. However, remember that not all web sites are submitted for rating.
Monitor your child’s use of chat rooms. Make sure you know enough about chat rooms to advise your child about chat rooms which should be avoided. Direct your child to safe chat rooms, especially those which have been created for children. And, most importantly, tell your children to-
- never arrange or agree to any face-to-face meeting with any person they met on-line
- never post to the Internet, or send to people they do not personally know, any pictures of themselves
- never give out any personal information about themselves, even if the information seems unimportant and innocent, to any person on-line
- never download pictures from an unknown source since there could be sexually explicit images
- never respond to messages on-line that are sexually suggestive, obscene, aggressive or harassing
- never believe as true anything that may be said by people on-line, especially about themselves because people on-line are not always who they pretend to be and paedophiles are particularly adept at pretending to be of the same age as your child
- never open e-mail attachments unless they know the person sending them and know what they contain, and
- never enter a private chat room.
Make sure you check your child’s e-mails and that your child knows that you will do so. Assure your child that you will do so not because you do not trust her/him but to ensure that she/he is safe from those who could harm her/ him. Better yet, share an e-mail address with your child so that you can monitor all messages. You should also check your phone bills for unusual amounts and unfamiliar phone numbers.
What is "child pornography"?
Child pornography consists of images and descriptions of children being sexually abused and tortured. In fact, most jurisdictions use the term "child abuse images" because that describes, more accurately, what child pornography is all about: the torture and abuse of children for sexual gratification and profit. Child pornography is now a highly organised, multi million-dollar industry, profiting from the abuse and torture of children all over the world. And the Internet is the preferred medium for its distribution, although mobile cellular phones are now coming into increasing use, both for creation and distribution of child abuse images. At the risk of sounding alarmist, it is no exaggeration to say that every child who has access to the Internet, either via a computer or a mobile phone, is a potential victim of paedophiles and child abusers.
Paedophiles and child abusers use child pornography-
- for sexual stimulation and gratification, which usually leads to masturbation and, in many cases, the actual sexual abuse of children
- to groom and seduce children by lowering their inhibitions into accepting sex with adults as "normal, acceptable and pleasurable" acts and that "everybody is doing it"
- to instruct children on how to perform specific sexual acts
- to trade and exchange collections of child pornography, thus stimulating demand for more child pornography, and
- to blackmail and threaten children into silence about what is being done to them
What are the laws concerning child pornography?
Child pornography is the only category of materials that is completely prohibited, on pain of criminal sanctions, from creation, possession and distribution in most countries.
In South Africa, in terms of the Films and Publications Act, 1996, it is an offence to-
- be in possession of, or
- create or produce or assist in the creation or production of, or
- import or take steps to procure, obtain or access, or
- knowingly export, broadcast or distribute or cause to be exported, broadcast or distributed
Any film or publication which contains child pornography or which advocates, advertises or promotes child pornography or the sexual exploitation of children.
A person convicted of any of the above offences may be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment for each of the above offences.
The Films and Publications Act also makes it an offence to expose any person under the age of 18 years to materials with images or descriptions of sexual conduct.
Failure to report knowledge or suspicions about any person involved with child pornography is also an offence, as is the failure to take steps to prevent access, by any person under the age of 18 years, to materials containing images or descriptions of sexual conduct under one’s control.
Glossary of some expressions associated with the Internet
Attachment is a file, sent as part of an e-mail, containing information in the form of sounds or texts or pictures
Chat room is a place or a "room" on the Internet where people from anywhere in the world can "enter", by using passwords and nicknames, to "meet" and chat, exchange and share information, including pictures, with others in the "room". People chat by typing messages which everybody in that "room" can see on their computer screens. However, chat rooms also provide facilities for chatting in private, so that only those in the "private room" can see the messages. Chat rooms which are not monitored to evict paedophiles and child abusers pose the greatest Internet risk to children since chat rooms are "hunting grounds" used by paedophiles and child abusers to locate victims. Since you can see only the messages and not the person, it is impossible to know if the person chatting with your child is really who she/he claims to be. You cannot know, for instance, that the person pretending to be a 15-year old boy is, in fact, a 55-year old paedophile or sexual pervert
Web browser is a computer software programme that lets you browse or search or "surf" the Internet, like Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator
Download means to transfer information, pictures, films and even music from a web site to be saved in your computer
E-mail is mail sent electronically, via the Internet, from one computer to another computer
Filter is computer software that enables you to block certain content and web sites from appearing in your computer
Instant messaging is a way of communicating, through typed messages, with someone else via the Internet. It is similar to ending an SMS via mobile cellular phones. People use a special language – "chat lingo" – when sending instant messages. For instance, "ROFL" stands for "rolling on the floor laughing"; "BRBPAW" means "be right back parents watching"; "Btw" stands for "by the way"; "RU VGL" asks "are you very good looking" and "C U L8r" stands for "see you later'.
ICQ, standing for "I seek you", is computer software that allows you to chat, send messages, exchange information and pictures with any other person who is online
Internet Service Provider (ISP) are companies which provide access to the Internet fora fee. MWeb and AOL, for instance, are ISPs
On-line means being connected to the Internet and exploring the "cyber world", while off-line refers to the real world