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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Ashleigh, The Daily Mail and Facebook: lessons learned

The Daily Mail published an apology in its print edition today over an article, which originally appeared with the headline "I posed as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook. What followed will sicken you."

What followed did sicken me but not for the same reasons that it did most people.

Not Facebook
The hoo-ha was about an account written by Mark Williams-Thomas, a former police detective working as a criminologist and child protection expert, who had gone on a social networking site pretending to be a 14-year-old female. The article says that within seconds he had been approached by older men making inappropriate suggestions and personal questions of sexual nature, with the implication that Facebook was a breeding ground for paedophiles and other sexual predators with a penchant for sex with teenagers.

As it turns out the SNS he had used was not Facebook at all, as Williams-Thomas clarified in a tweet (below), although he refuses to reveal which site it was. According to Williams-Thomas, despite his requests for the Mail to change the draft, the paper went ahead and printed the unamended copy. When Facebook protested, it changed the heading to "I posed as a girl of 14 online. What followed will sicken you."

It sounds all too convenient that such a controversial article was published so soon after the news on the conviction of 33-year-old Peter Chapman for the rape and murder of teenager Ashleigh Hall, whom he had groomed on Facebook.

Chapman, a registered sex offender, had approached the 17-year-old Hall from Durham on the social networking site, masked as a 16-year-old boy. Hall went to meet Chapman believing she had a date with a boy from her age group but told her mother she was staying overnight with a friend. The teenager was never to return.

Facebook is now threatening to sue the Mail for misrepresenting their brand image, as first reported by David Steven in Global Dashboard, and followed up by, The Guardian and the BBC.

Internet: villain or hero
Last month I worked as a digital reporter at the Young People in a Digital World 2010 conference in Wales, a discussion forum on digital skills and e-safety for children and young people hosted by WISE KIDS and WISP (hashtag #YPDW2010 on Twitter).

The message from the experts was clear: the future is digital. Young people need to experience the digital tools available to them as a life skill, and lessons on internet safety are to be part of that education.

Knowing that schools, youth workers and media consultancy organisations, such as WISE KIDS, are taking proactive steps to encourage internet access and digital literacy in young people, I am disheartened and enraged to imagine the potential impact media stories like the one in The Mail could have on families with young children, who regularly use social networking sites.

At the YPDW2010, I spoke to Rebecca Newton of Mind Candy, creators of the Moshi Monsters site. With many years' experience managing online communities of young people at sites such as Habbo Hotels and Moshi, she understands online behaviours in depth and explained to me how e-moderators flag up suspicious approaches, which require further investigation.

Two key things I learned from Rebecca were that, firstly, actual paedophiles do not approach their victims overnight asking direct questions such as where you go to school, what your age is, etc. There is a "grooming" process which can take from months to years. Secondly, children are far more in danger of being sexually exploited or abused by people they actually know off-line, such as a parent, a step parent, an uncle, a cousin, a neighbour.

The fact that the internet is often painted as a dangerous world with sexually deviant creatures lurking at every corner is the product of a collective fear created by scare media stories – exactly as the one printed by The Daily Mail. Here's my interview with Rebecca:

Her words made me reflect on the enormous responsibility media organisations and individual journalists have in influencing the perception of the nations' parents on children and their relationship with the internet.

Peter Chapman's conviction news splashed out on the front pages was harrowing enough for any parent to read, but a newspaper article saying an adult posing as a teen on Facebook was besieged by come-ons from several older men, only foments unhealthy, blind hysteria. Articles of similar nature could start a nationwide trend of frightened, overanxious parents, taking all internet access away from their children.

Hard as it may be, Ashleigh's story needs to be told to the world, for there is a lesson there to be learned. But it is totally unnecessary – dare I say even irresponsible – for any publication to spread scaremongering rumours about Facebook and exaggerate the vulnerability and helplessness of young users.

Captive children
Professor Tanya Byron gave a wonderful videoed keynote address at the YPDW2010 conference, which showed how rightly child-centric her recommendations are.

Tanya Byron is a clinical psychologist and child therapist who was commissioned by Gordon Brown to conduct an independent review on inappropriate material for children and young people on the internet and video games in 2007. The results of her investigations, published the following year as "The Byron Review", or Safer Children on a Digital World, informs all present government's policies on e-safety.

In Prof. Byron's words:
"We live in a risk-averse culture. We are raising our children in captivity."

She was referring to the tendency adults in this country have of shutting their children off the outside world, believing they would be more protected at home, under their supervision. But, she says, adventure and risk-taking are part of childhood. If they can't do it offline, they will seek their identities online.

Let's face it: all young people do it. Social networking sites have become a lifeline for the young generation. Just as we used to hang on the phone with our friends for hours on end in pre-internet times (with our parents shouting next door that they need to use the landline urgently), young people now stay connected with each other 24 hours a day through computers, mobile phones, even video games. Blocking their access to sites every one of their friends is using is pointless to say the least. Children are "digital natives" – they will always find a way round them.

And when they do, unless they are equipped with knowledge and skills to protect themselves, empowered to distinguish the good from the bad, what chance do they have of staying safe?

Ashleigh's choice
Ashleigh's mother had taught her daughter not to speak to strangers, online as well as offline. But as a 17-year-old, with a natural interest in the opposite sex, she must have, for one instant of poor judgement, been carried away by what she thought was a young boy's constant attention. For that one mistake she had to pay with their life.

Facebook came under criticism for refusing installation of the panic button, which allows users to report suspicious activity directly to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). MSN and Bebo already have the button installed, but Facebook says their own reporting system is adequate. You can read more details in this Guardian report.

Young students attending the WISE KIDS-WISP conference said they found the reporting system on social networking sites awkward, with far too many questions to be answered. For that reason, often, they could not be bothered to report.

It is likely Ashleigh knew she had the option of reporting Chapman on Facebook, or the boy Chapman pretended to be. She chose not to, as she felt there was no need. She trusted him. It is humanly understandable.

What defies comprehension is how a man on the sex offenders' register could have had a profile on a social networking site in the first place. And why Merseyside Police waited nine months to start pursuing Chapman after he was reported missing from his home last year.

Too many failed the young Ashleigh, and yet she alone paid the price.

Mobile geo-tracking
Despite safety and privacy setting issues having caused controversy among users, Facebook is planning to add a new feature from next month, which, like Foursquare, will allow users to share their location with others, as announced by The New York Times.

With a fourth of its 400 million users accessing Facebook from their mobile phones, the new feature would open up infinite possibilities for location-based advertisement.

I accept that Facebook is, at the end of the day, a commercial enterprise and needs to generate a revenue in order to keep competitive, but I wonder what the consequences of such an application could have on the safety of our children, even ourselves, as adults.

We live in an age dominated by online and mobile conversations, often in open platforms, with privacy becoming an increasingly rare commodity. In our haste and excitement to develop more and more tools to facilitate the communication, we may have unwittingly dragged young people under the wheels of technology.

The traffic got faster and more furious, but we forgot to set up the digital equivalent of the lollipop lady so that they can cross that highway safely, before they can learn to drive fast cars.

Social media sites, child protection agencies, parents, guardians and educators all share the responsibility for safeguarding the protection of our young people. At a time when communication tools have never been so advanced, it is ironic there should be so many crossed lines.

It is time we started talking with, not AT each other.

Let us not allow the tragic loss of Ashleigh Hall's life to have been in vain.

Updated 12/03/10: Michael Cole has posted a fantastic piece on how flawed Facebook's reporting system is:

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Anonymous Rebecca Newton said...

Well written Madame Dotty! It's a rare treat to find bloggers who can actually write :) Just to be clarify - I do not discount the seriousness or the reality of online predatory behavior. It's out there and nobody should be a victim, regardless of the percentage online vs. offline. I think it's important to be realistic about what truly happens online and I suggest we should avoid sensationalising the dangers online while not discussing how much more prevalent predatory behavior is offline.

As for Facebook and a geo location app, I'm hoping the default will be OFF and a user will have to turn it on. And we need to keep in mind that technically, one must be over 14 to register on Facebook.

So, the responsibility here is with parents and educators and young people of all ages - it takes a village.

Thanks for such a thoughtful article :)

12 March 2010 at 04:35  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Hello Rebecca. Thank you so much for your comment.

I am sorry if the way I wrote made it sound as if you were denying the existence of dangers online. You certainly weren't, but I was annoyed at how the Mail had tried to distort the image of Facebook to suit their convenience (and sales of the paper) so I was trying to find a good counterargument.

I am not worried about Facebook – they can hire lawyers, they can defend themselves. But if some young people's parents read and believed the Mail article 100%, they could be cracking down on their children's use of the Internet, instead of focussing on wisening them up, digitally speaking. Someone needed to stand up for the rights of our young guys! :)

12 March 2010 at 13:43  

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