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Children and the media

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Child protection on the Internet

As we entered the new millennium an estimated 305 million people were making use of the Internet, including well over 17 million of the world's children.

The World Wide Web is an exciting place for inquisitive young minds and it does not take long for children to pick up the skills needed to go online. However, without proper precautionary measures, cyberspace can be a potentially threatening environment in which children and young people can be exposed to hate messages, sexually explicit material, graphic violence and even predators who roam chat rooms in search of innocent prey.

Young people surfing the Internet are also vulnerable to exploitative marketing. They may be persuaded to engage in activities that could have negative legal or financial consequences, such as giving out a parent's credit card number. Buying and selling of information about children by direct marketers and information brokers is a profitable business.

In 1998 the controversial US Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) placed obligations on websites with content for children to adopt and publicize a privacy policy, and obtain the consent of parents of children under 13 years of age before collecting or disclosing personal information from them. Direct parental consent must also be obtained if the sites offer access to third parties through chat rooms, email and instant messaging.

Other parts of the world, including France and South Africa, are also establishing laws on Internet content. The European Community has initiated an Internet Action Plan aimed at combating illegal and harmful content on global networks. Internet service providers have introduced filter systems, while increasing numbers of individuals and organizations are developing activities designed to protect young people. Internet safety hotlines in eight European Union countries are linked into a network that allows the public to report illegal content.

To exclude children from the Internet because crimes are being committed online would be to deprive them of an extraordinary source of information and self-improvement. Child protection experts argue that the responsibility lies with parents and carers to protect their children. The challenge for parents, schools, public authorities, community groups, Internet service providers, media industries and regulatory bodies is to ensure that children are properly advised about the benefits and perils of cyberspace and are equipped with the skills to safeguard themselves.

There are some obvious precautions that need to be taken when introducing children to the Internet.

• Have the terminals been checked for screening mechanisms that prevent access to harmful material?

• Have the children been coached in personal safety - and been given opportunities to express the safety code in their own words, so that they feel they have ownership of it - before being allowed to go online?

• Have procedures been put in place for the reporting of improper behaviour on the Internet?

• Do teachers know about the regulatory agencies that need to be informed about sites, search engines and Internet service providers that might be considered harmful to children, especially those promoting unlawful activities?

Good practice

The following initiatives give examples of good practice, suggested further reading and weblinks.

• The US Federal Trade Commission has a Kidz Privacy webpage explaining the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act for adults, teachers, children and the media.

MaMaMedia, considered to be one of the best US children's activity websites, monitors communications, offers no realtime chat rooms, limits the collection of children's personal information and does not share user information with the site's business partners. It also requires all those who register to supply parental email addresses so that consent can be obtained.

• The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) is an international, independent organization that empowers the public, especially parents, to make informed decisions about electronic media by means of the open and objective labelling of content. Web authors fill in an online questionnaire describing the content of their site, which is then given a Content Label by the ICRA.

• The international campaign group Innocence en Danger is one of many groups of concerned parents seeking alliances to protect children from the risks of unsupervised Internet use.

• The UK-based interactive website Miss Dorothy provides links for children and adults to examine safety codes, government guidelines and examples of good safety practice in schools.

Chat Danger provides parents with advice on how to recognize and prevent problems that can arise in chat rooms. Although it is aimed primarily at the UK and Europe, advice is applicable for anyone in the world.

• The local police in Montreal, Canada, have prepared a Guide de Sécurité pour les Jeunes Internautes (Security Guide for Young Internet Users) for parents to teach their children about navigating the World Wide Web safely.

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