Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 4, Issue 44, Tuesday November 13, 2007


what tangled webs we weave

"The Spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly Fly would soon come back again:
So he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready, to dine upon the Fly."

Mary Howitt

Last year, I signed up for the social networking site hi5, and while adding friends to my list, I came across the profile of my 14-year old cousin. "There's no way anyone would say she's a minor" I remember telling myself. There she was, sporting heavy make-up and striking provocative poses in the dozens of photographs she had posted, inviting comments from people she couldn't possibly know. Or could she? With her parents, both denizens of the pre-Internet era, blissfully unaware of the secret life of their youngest, I could only hope she would realise what she was doing before something happened.

Browsing, chatting, instant-messaging, blogging, shopping...the list of things you can do online seems almost endless. The opportunities for accessing the Internet are also greater now than ever before. With the previous generation still largely ignorant about the multi-verse of the World Wide Web, it is the young people here that spend most of their time online.

As stated by safetykids.com, "Personal computers are no longer the only method used for accessing the Internet. Children can go online from personal computers at home, a friend's house, in school, a library, club, or cafe. Many game consoles can be connected to the Internet and used for chatting and other online interaction. It is also possible to access the Internet on mobile devices such as cellular telephones and other hand-held devices. In other words children don't have to be in the company of responsible adults to use the Internet." Just how dangerous can this get?

Hello? Is it me you're looking for?
"I was playing this online game called Puzzle Pirates, when this boy on the forum asked me if I would like to be his girlfriend. I asked him his age, and he replied that he was 13," says Sadia (22). "I was a little amused and revealed my own age, expecting him to back off, but he very casually informed me that he's had girlfriends all older than him.

Most instant messaging services and online forums do require their users to be above 13 years of age; however there aren't any strict methods of enforcing this rule, and so many young people lie about their ages to sign up for these services. Samah (22), a schoolteacher tells us, "All my grade 7 students are on Facebook. They've lied about their ages to sign up. Sadia adds to this by telling us about her nephew, who is around 13 and on Facebook under the assumed age of 18. "He's got all these hot older women on his friends list."

Sadia goes on to tell us about her young niece who is a 'chat freak', and loves chatting online. "Many of the people on her contacts list are grown men, years older than her. They are constantly flattering her about her eyes or her features and chatting her up. Some have even gone so far as to ask her to meet them, but luckily enough, she's had the sense not to go along with this." The question remains, how many other girls, subject to flattery and false promises from older men and charming manipulators, have not had the sense to resist meeting them up with them?

According to the Microsoft Security site, predators establish contact with kids through conversations in chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mail, or discussion boards. Many teens use peer support online forums to deal with their problems. Predators often go to these online areas to look for vulnerable victims.

Online predators try to gradually seduce their targets through attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts, and often devote considerable time, money, and energy to this effort. They're aware of the latest music and hobbies likely to interest kids.

They listen to and sympathise with kids' problems. They also try to ease young people's inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their conversations or by showing them sexually explicit material. Why it's harder to fight is because online predators work hard to drive wedges between kids and their families, often exaggerating minor problems at home. Sexually victimised children tend to become withdrawn and depressed.

Every breath you take...
"I was woken up by a call at 3 am. I was startled, wondering who could have called me so late. The number on my cell-phone was very unfamiliar, and so was the voice of the caller, who said he wanted to talk to me," says Samira* (23). "I was about to dismiss it as a crank call when he said my name. I'd never met this person, never heard of him, but suddenly, here he was; he knew my name, what university I attended, who my friends were, and claimed to have seen my pictures. Things got worse from the next day onwards, when I started getting all these e-mails from this person I didn't know, who claimed his friend told him I was his ex-girlfriend, and that we'd been 'physically involved', and that I broke his heart. All of which was completely untrue, since I didn't even know the person he mentioned, and yet he seemed to know a lot about me. I was really confused about how he knew so much about me...until I realised he got all my information from my hi5 account."

A key component of communication through the Internet is that it is relatively anonymous. This is particularly true for online forums and chat rooms where people from hundreds of countries may gather and meet, trade information and files, and chat about a range of topics from music to sex. Though this has bred a large number of international relationships, most of which prove harmless, it does present the possibility that ones on-line personality may become the target of unwanted attention. Given the tendency towards 'Will you friendship me' SMS messages and crank calls, it was only inevitable that these desperate people would take their activities to the Internet.

The National Centre for Victims of Crimes talks about how the perpetrators reach their victims. "Cyber stalkers target their victims through chat rooms, message boards, discussion forums, and e-mail. Cyber stalking takes many forms such as: threatening or obscene e-mail; spamming (in which a stalker sends a victim a multitude of junk e-mail); live chat harassment or flaming (online verbal abuse); leaving improper messages on message boards or in guest books; sending electronic viruses; sending unsolicited e-mail; tracing another person's computer and Internet activity, and electronic identity theft."

Wayne Petherick adds to this by saying "Most often, given the vast distances that the Internet spans, this behaviour will never manifest itself in the physical sense but this does not mean that the pursuit is any less distressing. There are a wide variety of means by which individuals may seek out and harass individuals even though they may not share the same geographic borders, and this may present a range of physical, emotional, and psychological consequences to the victim."

In fact, one doesn't need to visit chat rooms or sign up for social networking sites to experience cyber stalking. Ask any IM service user whether s/he has received instant messages or unsolicited mail asking for numbers, or looking to 'make friendship', and you'll get tons of stories. It has become so commonplace that most people know how to block, delete, or otherwise get rid of stalkers. When we consider younger users, children below the age of 14 - and yes, the number of Internet users in this age group is rising - those who are not aware of these methods, it becomes that much more frightening.

The Internet has certainly changed the nature of interpersonal relationships. “More and more people are meeting new friends on the Internet by the day, often communicating solely through such means, or even meeting such friends to a face-to-face basis. In addition, many people are even more likely to find a close, intimate friend through the Internet, and cases of marriages to “Internet friend” are increasing constantly. The Internet stands not as an obstacle to intimate, close relationships, but rather as a catalyst.” (Tao, 2000). Sometimes, however, things can go very wrong.

Safina (21) talks about a harrowing experience she had with an 'e-pal' of hers. The person in question first added her to his contact list, and then began to e-mail her. He even sent her invitations to the social networking site Orkut. Things took a turn when she discovered that he was saving her photos and modifying them to show him with her. At that point she removed all her pictures from her profile. Soon thereafter, the man stopped and his account disappeared as well.

The weak will seek the weaker until they've broken them
Stalkers and strangers aren't the only people who can reach out through the Net and harm your child. Another alarming side effect about the easy access to the Internet, is the phenomenon of cyber-bullying. www.stopcyberbullying.org defines this as 'when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. It has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. Once adults become involved, it is plain and simple cyber-harassment or cyber-stalking. Adult cyber-harassment or cyber stalking is NEVER called cyber-bullying.'

Khaled (18) talks about his experience. "Some of my acquaintances, who used to pick on me in person, suddenly took their harassment to another level. They started these discussion threads on a forum, making fun of me, spreading false rumours about my character, looks, and sexuality. It got so bad that I couldn't look anyone in the eye when I walked into my coaching classes. I had to quit these forums, and when they started e-mailing me, I changed my e-mail address, and then later, my phone number."

When all is said and done, how do we protect our children from these frightening traps? The Microsoft Safety site offers guidelines on making computers safe for the children. Here are a few tips:

* Talk to your kids about sexual predators and potential online dangers.
* Use parental control software that's built into new operating systems like Windows Vista or that you can download for free like Windows Live Family Safety Settings. Sites like NetNanny.com also offer great parental control programs.

*Insist that your kids follow age limits on social networking Web sites. The recommended age for signing up for social networking sites like Windows Live Spaces or MySpace is usually 13 and over. If your children are under the recommended age for these sites, do not let them use the sites.

* Young children should not use chat rooms. The dangers are too great. As children get older, direct them towards well-monitored kids' chat rooms. Encourage even your teens to use monitored chat rooms.

* If your children take part in chat rooms, make sure you know which ones they visit and with whom they talk. Monitor the chat areas yourself to see what kind of conversations take place.

* Instruct your children to never leave the chat room's public area. Many chat rooms offer private areas where users can have one-on-one chats with other userschat monitors can't read these conversations. These are often referred to as "whisper" areas.

*Keep the Internet-connected computer in a common area of the house, never in a child's bedroom. It is much more difficult for a predator to establish a relationship with your child if the computer screen is easily visible. Even when the computer is in a public area of your home, sit with your child when they are online.

* When your children are young, they should share the family e-mail address rather than have their own e-mail accounts. As they get older, you can ask your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to set up a separate e-mail address, but your children's mail can still reside in your account.

* Tell your children to never respond to instant messaging or e-mails from strangers. If your children use computers in places outside your supervision: the public library, school, or friends' homes, find out what computer safeguards are used.

*If all precautions fail and your kids do meet an online predator, don't blame them. The offender always bears full responsibility. Take decisive action to stop your child from any further contact with this person.

While these are pearls of wisdom from the online expert, we at Lifestyle would like to add one more to the list: talk to your children. Get to know their world better, and try to understand and respect their perspectives. When they find a friend in you, they will be that less likely to go looking to the Net for a sense of belonging.

By Sabrina F Ahmad
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Model: Saikat Mojumder, Surid Saeed
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.


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