Last year a man was tried and sentenced for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl who he had contacted through a teenage internet chat room. According to NOP research, nearly a quarter of all 7-16 year-olds visit internet chat rooms.The dangers have been widely publicised, but one Christian is doing more than just protecting his own family.
Rob Barron works as a volunteer online for AOL, a major internet service provider (ISP), patrolling chat rooms on the look out for problems. In his offline life, 39-year-old Rob is married and helps lead a small church in Poole, Dorset. As well as teaching English in a Christian English Language College in Bournemouth, he works on a part-time voluntary basis with a local community Christian radio station called Hope FM.
“Until recently, being online basically meant accessing web pages on the world wide web (www) or sending and receiving e-mails,” he says. “Now there is a whole online community of people who meet in ‘chat rooms’ and make real friendships with others of a similar age, background or shared interests.
“This is a wonderful new ‘world’ that people enjoy but it does bring problems.” It was awareness of these problems that prompted Rob to volunteer to be an online guide. “The main concern is from parents towards allowing their children to sit in chat rooms talking to people without any supervision. Being online is not the same as being in a room or chatting on a CB radio; there is a total lack of any distinctive features to a person. They can be totally anonymous or even adopt a totally different persona; it is possible for a person to claim they are a teenager when they are actually much older.”
The online guides are trained to ensure that the chat which children are involved in is safe and is not offensive or abusive. Guides sit at home online and are avail- able to enter any ‘open ’chat room to ensure that the chat is acceptable.(Private chat rooms can be made by a person for only his or her chosen friends to enter. AOL also has a chat room designed exclu- sively for children,which is only open when there is a host or guide present.This room has set opening hours to allow a trained host or guide to be present at all times.)
The guides move around the chat rooms but can also be called by any member who is concerned about chat in a given room. The guide will then go to that room to see what action needs to be taken. Rob says, “Guides are not ‘online cops’ there to throw people off when they get out of line. They are trained to handle situations in the chat rooms using maturity and common sense, primarily to help educate the members as to what is and is not acceptable.” Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AOL have clearly listed rules that all members agree to when signing on.
For example, if a young person is in a room and sees somebody swearing and causing offence, he or she pages a guide. First the guide asks the person to stop using bad language, then reminds them of the rules and where they can go to read them. If the person apologises and stops, no further action is taken, though the guide sits in the room for a few minutes to ensure everything stays pleasant.
In another scenario, Rob describes a man in a chat room talking about drugs. “As the guide, I immediately ask the person to stop as discussion of any illegal activity is not acceptable. “The person laughs and tells me to get a life. “I remind the person of the rules and ask again that they respect them and stop any more chat of this nature.
“The person tells the room the guide must be sitting at home smoking a spliff. “I issue the person with a ‘warning’. This reports the person directly to the Conditions of Service (COS) unit who decide what action to take. This action could be anything from knocking the person offline and recording the warning on their account, through to terminating their account.”
Sanctions are entirely at the COS unit’s discretion and the guide has no say in the action taken, nor is he/she informed of the details of action taken for confidentiality reasons. Chat room users are sometimes seen using illegal software designed to knock other people offline or attempting to get private information about credit card details by pretending to be an official of AOL. Again the guide takes immediate action, stopping the person from chatting in the room and reporting them to COS.
“Guides spend more of their time helping members with their questions than they do dealing with miscreants,” Rob says. “We are available to teach people how to use the system and how to fine-tune it for their own needs. This is a very rewarding part of the role and is very much appreciated by the members. The Internet is new to many people and only a small proportion know how to use it to its fullest.”
Rob says, “All members over the age of 18 are able to apply to join an AOL guide team once they have been online for at least six months. The selection process involves an application form online then, if selected to the short list,an online interview. If the person is deemed suitable, they will be invited onto a training course that lasts for five weeks during which time they will receive a lot of training as well as shadowing other guides so that they can see them in action and get a feel for the job involved.’
Facts & Figures:
According to a survey published by NOP, the number of seven-16-year-olds using the Internet now stands at 4.8 million – the number has doubled in just two years. The survey shows that from a level of 31% in September 1998, massive growth has led to 65% of all seven-16- year-olds now being internet users. Among 11-16s the figure is even higher, with eight out of 10 (78%) now online, while among the seven-10- year-olds, access to the web has now reached 47%. The most popular uses of the inter-net are for homework (56% of users), to send e-mails, (43%), to play games (42%) and for fun (40%). Chat rooms are popular with 23% of all seven-16s, rising to 41% of 15-16-year-olds. Four out of five seven-16-year-old internet users (81%) do so at school, while almost two-thirds (62%) now have access from home.
There are no academic qualifications required, but guides are expected to show an advanced knowledge of the online system as well as a high level of maturity. A guide is expected to do a minimum of six hours a week in two, three-hour shifts as part of a weekly rota. They use their own computer at home.
So why does Rob give up his time to go online? “As a committed Christian,” he says, “I am motivated by a desire to see the Internet used for the great good that it can be, while protecting people, particularly young people, from the possible dangers of abuse or offensive behaviour.
“Being a people person, I enjoy seeing others enjoy chat and making friends but also as a father of a teenage boy, I am concerned that he could be faced with conversation that I would not be happy with. God tells us clearly that we are to show concern for the young and do all we can to protect them. The online world is still fairly new but the potential for abuse is clear. If action is taken by organisations and individuals to prevent this, the online world can be a source of great enrichment for people’s lives.
“I know I can actively stop somebody from abusing the system, but I can also help to educate people as to acceptable standards of behaviour online while at the same time help the huge numbers of people online to use the Internet to its best. It can be used for so much good but most people need some instruction to get the most out of it. I can be there for them and help them do that.
“I know that there are other Christians who have actively got involved for similar reasons to myself. The Internet gets a lot of bad press because of the potential abuse, but there is also potential for so much good so I would encourage any Christian to recognise the opportunity they have to make a real difference.”
Several web sites offer parents, children and teenagers advice of safe surfing.
AOL sponsors two sites — www.safekids.com and www.safeteens.com — with an online challenge to help teach children how to avoid chat room dangers.
Other useful sites are: www.parentsonline.gov.uk, www.chatdanger.com, www.childnet-int.org, www.cyberangels.org