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December 05, 2003Child power on the internet. The internet has the potential to be used as a powerful tool for the development and safety of our children, a leading campaigner has said. Logging on is often portrayed as a dangerous activity for children with exposure to paedophile groomers and pop-up pornography among the real risks.
But Northern Ireland Children's Commissioner Nigel Williams believes the internet is a largely untapped resource through which youngsters can learn and express themselves in a way like no other. And in some cases it could even save their lives, he said.
Mr Williams, who took up the new watchdog post in October, was previously chief executive of Childnet International. This charity has the two-pronged approach of both specialising in protecting children from abuse on the internet and encouraging its positive use. During his time at the head of the organisation, the father-of-four said he saw chilling examples of how young people can be abused through the internet but added he is keen to stress that the dangers are outweighed by the positive opportunities the medium offers.
The commissioner drew attention to a website recently launched in Northern Ireland by the NSPCC. There4me.com is a confidential website, targeting 12 to 16 year-olds, which offers on-line advice, information and support on a broad range of issues important to teenagers. The service is the result of research that shows as many as two in three youngsters feel unable to talk directly about personal problems. The NSPCC said other research showed that 75% of children have access to the internet and feel comfortable using it. Originally piloted in England and Wales, There4me.com says it has heard from children needing advice on issues such as sexual and physical abuse, bullying at school and relationships.
In the development of the site, the NSPCC sought help from other organisations to ensure that it was able to offer the best advice and remain safe for its users. Microsoft and the National High Technology Crime Unit were consulted to make sure that the site would be accessible to a 12-year-old, but safe from even the most determined hacker. Data encryption, firewalling and some radically new techniques are used to provide the most secure environment possible.
Belfast-born Radio 1 DJ Colin Murray lent his voice to a series of harrowing radio advertisements featuring young people writing a suicide note.He said he believes the internet is a very effective tool to encourage children to seek advice."It is a service that young people will value and use because it provides them with a way to talk on their own terms about things that are worrying them," he said.
Mr Williams said he believed an internet resource such as the website had the potential to save a child's life by offering confidential advice on how to work through a problem before it gets too much to cope with. "This is a great example of how one can use the internet effectively. And it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential positive uses," he said. "By providing children and young people with this kind of information and confidential advice on-line, There4me.com reaches out to them through a medium we know they use and like. It's easily accessible and many children find it easier to send a short e-mail than to lift the phone and speak to someone. Boys are more likely to make use of a medium like this as they are not as accomplished as girls in talking about how they feel. We have got to use every possible medium we have to reach out to children."
Mr Williams said he thought using the internet also gave children the chance to develop their creativity."There is a great example of 13-year-old Sarah Bowler in England who became very concerned about damage to our environment. She decided to use a website to promote the idea of planting trees to compensate for the amount of pollution caused by different modes of transport. She set one up herself and came up with the idea of including a calculator to count up the number of trees. It was very successful. That's an opportunity that didn't exist before and there should be more of it."
The children's campaigner recommended www.childnetacademy. org as a useful place to see the kinds of positive and fun uses youngsters are finding for the internet.
The NSPCC has released anonymous details of some of the cases dealt with in England and Wales as an illustration of how There4me.com helps children. The charity said one 13-year-old boy contacted the site to talk about the physical abuse he was being subjected to by his father. During these contacts he was encouraged to tell his teacher who was able to help him to contact social services. A transcript from one of his e-mails said: "You're the first person I've told. I find it extremely difficult to talk to people on the phone and even my friends. That's why I'm glad I found this site. I just wish he'd stop hurting me."
Another case cited was that of a young girl whose stepfather was sexually abusing her and possibly her younger siblings too. The NSPCC said that through using the site, the child was able to talk about her ordeal. Through the support of an adviser, the girl was also able to talk to her teacher which resulted in an investigation. The children are now being looked after by the local authority and the matter has gone to court. The girl continues to use the site for support, they said.