Children, the Internet, and media sensationalism

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 13 January 2004

A major story in the UK yesterday was the release of a report by the NCH - Child abuse, child pornography and the internet [PDF file: 201k]. This was widely reported as including the staggering statistic that child pornography crimes have "rocketed" by 1,500 per cent. (BBC News / Guardian with comment pieces from Rachel O'Connell and the report's author John Carr / Independent). The reasons I use the word 'staggering' are because unlike The Independent, I don't think I would ever describe something as "rocketing" over a fifteen year period, the figure is for being "charged or cautioned" not convicted, and we are dealing with numbers which make the usage of four figure percentages ridiculous.

I'm not even convinced that the logic used in the argument is all that valid. The NCH believe that the reason it is important to catch users of internet child pornography is that

Research from the US Postal Inspection Service has shown that as many as one in three men found in possession of child abuse images will also be hands on abusers.

       source: John Carr (http://society.guardian.co.uk/children/story/0,1074,1119850,00.html)

Is it not then arguably the case that it is the internet which has actually allowed the law enforcement agencies to track these individuals down? And that of the 549 people cautioned or charged last year because of their use of the internet around 190 of them may not now become a physical abuser because they have been successfully identified as a risk by the authorities?

The issue of child safety and the internet is one that the BBC New Media takes very seriously, and actively campaigns about with Chatguide. It is also something that we put a great deal of thought into behind-the-scenes, whether it is the way the editorial team intervene to keep BBCi Search safe, or the way in which the corporation handles the personal data gathered by registration from the under-16's. It makes it all the more galling that the negative connotations of children using the internet always grab much bigger headlines.

Talking to BBC Radio Five Live, the author of the NCH report, John Carr, said:

"We do need more and better technical solutions, and this is really throwing a challenge down to the industry."

I think it will be difficult for the industry to find the will to develop these 'better solutions' unless you can make it a commercial proposition, or commercial suicide not to. The fundamental problem here is not that technology has allowed the evil paedophile genie out of the bottle, but rather that there are people who want to abuse children regardless of whether they meet them via the internet or anywhere else. The opening paragraph of the online summary of the NCH report admits that:

Modern society has always found it difficult to detect and prevent child abuse, the majority of which has taken place within existing family or social circles or in certain institutional settings.

But I guess "Charity for children concludes that most abuse takes place with people that children trust, in, or near to the home" doesn't make such good copy for the press. Nor, frankly, does it make such reassuring copy, as it doesn't carry the sub-text that if only we could do something about "the Internet" or "strangers", then our children would be safe.

In fairness to John Carr, the concluding paragraph of the NCH report summary is:

Finding a solution to the problem of child safety on the internet is important in its own right, but as long as acceptable solutions evade us, much that is dynamic, valuable and indisputably legitimate about the internet is also threatened.

That is a sentiment with which we both agree, but not one that I see much evidence of in the reporting of the issue. When I was out at the weekend I was discussing with a friend the issue of pornography and corporate networks, and the different policies that applied in different companies. As the discussion moved on to the internet in general he suddenly said:

"I don't agree with chatrooms"

It seemed to me (and I admit I could be wrong) that his opinion was based entirely on the media projection of a problem that can be avoided with proper moderation of chat-rooms and proper supervision of a child's use of a computer. Unfortunately the dominant player in the home computer landscape washed their hands of chat room responsibility very publicly, and I think that was very harmful to the public perception of the industry as a whole.

Which is why I think it is a shame that yesterday's sensational media reporting, by focussing on attention grabbing statistics, yet again prevented us from having a sensible debate in this country about how we handle the way children and "the Internet" relate to each other. I pointed out the other day an article about a three year old who had always lived with TiVO. There is now a sizeable proportion of a generation of eleven year olds and under in this country who will only ever live in, and remember, a world where their house has an internet connection. The mainstream debate really needs to move away from these sensational headlines and actually begin to address how these children are interacting with the online world as they grow up.

See also this piece in a similar vein - Web wrongly blamed for child-sex offence explosion - pointed out to me by mat

Keep up to date on my new blog