‘Hi! I’m TopKat and I just came third in the county’s under-14 cross-country.’

Looks innocuous enough, doesn’t it? Couldn’t possibly be dangerous for the child that posted it, could it? The sad truth, though, is that there is probably enough information in this one sentence for the wrong kind of person to identify the child that made the posting.

All of us are sensitive of our duty of care to children and young adults. Those of us running web sites, social networks, blogs and the like probably take what we think are sensible steps to ensure children are ‘safe’. No real names to be used! No addresses! No emails! We probably screen for ‘purple words’, we may also have the content of bulletin boards and chat-rooms moderated, just to be sure.

The unfortunate fact though, is that however careful we are, however thorough, the very tools we so value on the internet can make it a potentially dangerous place. Think about it from your own perspective. You know you shouldn’t, but how often do you use the same password? More important from the point of view of identifying you, how often do you use the same ID, even if it is a nickname?

The reality is whilst most of us use the same password over and over, we have some protection because web sites take extraordinary steps to safeguard them, but we happily post our nicknames over blogs, bulletin boards and social networks. Punch it in to Google and there is a good chance someone can find your unwitting web footprint. With a little detective work you’d be surprised how much those disparate and unrelated postings could tell someone about you.

Same problem for TopKat! She, or he, probably uses that nickname on a number of their favourite web sites. And sports results are regularly posted to the web. Start sleuthing and you’d be amazed at what you can dig up.

The risk for children and young adults (and the rest of us) is the ‘jigsaw’ effect of data posted across the internet. So what to do?

Regulation, both self-regulation and the statutory sort, clearly has a role, but short of shutting down the internet it is unlikely the risks can be eliminated. What we need to work towards is a situation where risks are reduced, and most important children and young adults are educated as to how to minimise the dangers to themselves.

The recent Byron Review (http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview/) makes a balanced assessment of the risks and the benefits for children of the internet, and sets-out some excellent recommendations.

Taking as an analogy how we teach children to cross the road, Byron advocates educating children and young adults as to the potential risks of the web, with a view to achieving the following outcomes; an ability to manage (or find support in managing) the risks; and an ability to take ownership of their own online safety.

That said, Byron is quite clear that there is a responsibility on site owners and content providers to reduce the risks to children, and to encourage and promote safe behaviour.

So now may be the time to review how ‘safe’ your web site is. To ask the question ‘what more could I do?’, and to see what else you could be doing to help young children appreciate and manage the risks, but still enjoy, explore and grow with the internet.

If you would like to receive our five-point-plan for improving web safety for children, please email me.

Mark Wooding is the Director of Soprano. Soprano provides strategic consultancy, creative execution and build and implementation for all aspects of digital media. Mark is one of the UK’s web pioneers having established one of the first Internet Agencies – Nexus Multimedia. Mark has run BBDO’s Traffic agency, and helped found Proximity London and establish Proximity in the Middle East. He also ran Electronic Solutions and has consulted widely on user experience and e-marketing issues.


Published on: 10:29AM on 26th February 2009