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Is child internet access a questionable risk?

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue September, September 1- September 30, 2003 | BY Charles Adetokunbo Shoniregun , Andrew Anderson 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

The unlimited and pervasive use of the Internet by young people raises many concerns about child safety. What solutions are available and why aren't they being used?

The unlimited and pervasive use of the Internet by young people raises many concerns about child safety. What solutions are available and why aren't they being used?

The Internet has developed into a vast and complex network that has had great impact and become essential to businesses, schools, government agencies and various information systems in organisations. There is no doubt that the Internet has become an indispensable part of life for many people. Innovative avenues of communication -- chat rooms, e-mail, downloads and information searches -- are among the Internets greatest assets.

This paper discusses the Internet in correlation to its usage by children both for academic and social activities. It explores the dangers associated with unsupervised Internet access. Chat rooms and instant messaging are the mediums that facilitate some of the key issues and problems within this topic. The IT solutions to the problem are investigated through an evaluation of parental control services offered by America Online (AOL) and software packages available at the marketplace. This paper investigates an area of concern that is echoed by government reports and research statistics, namely, what causes the large percentage of non-deployment of these solutions?


Millions of surfers use Internet chat rooms. An Internet chat room is a place where conversations take place between two or more people using their keyboards to write messages on to the screen, which are then published in a virtual room. The early form of chat rooms used a protocol called IRC (Internet relay chat), which was facilitated via a program. Today's chat rooms are Web-based and are usually underpinned by a Java program. Chat rooms offer immense opportunities for communication. Relationships can be built with people from all over the world.

The most common way to access the Internet is through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). An ISP allows you to dial into a network via a modem and connect to the main areas of the Internet. ISPs also offer other services such as e-mail and Web hosting. America Online (AOL) is one of the world's largest ISP's established 18 years ago when one man thought that it was a good idea to enable the power of the Internet to be available to the average person. Since then, AOL has grown to a company that employs 19,000 people who serve a community of more than 35 million members worldwide. AOL denotes its success to the content, the community, the convenience, and the helpful culture of their service. The company boasts of having one of the most powerful connectivity engines in the online world [1].

Despite all the development in technology and applications associated with the Internet, the question of how to legislate the Internet has made small movement in comparison to its growth. This is partially due to the question of ownership. The Internet does not belong to any governing body. As a result there are struggles to control the content that it provides. It has given aid to new types of crime and unethical abuse. Child safety is amongst the highest profile issues concerning the Internet and its volatile state.

Unsupervised Access to the Internet

A child or teenager having unsupervised access to the Internet is open to a world of harmful risks that can be both psychologically damaging and/or physically abusive. Chat rooms have been the area of focus and research in Internet safety for children. In recent months, cases of abduction and/or murder of children has awakened society to the realities of promiscuous matters such as paedophilia. The Internet has been found to facilitate such conditions. Several arrests have been made recently, including celebrities who visit sites and download indecent pictures. Chat rooms are used to lure children into offline meetings, which are extremely dangerous. The victims of this type of abuse are usually tricked into these meetings by building up a false sense of security with the offender through online conversation. The following are some of the notable cases of Internet chat rooms abuses:

Case 1: In October 2001, a paediatrician pled guilty to 11 felony counts of attempted child molestation and sending pornographic pictures to a minor via the Internet. The doctor preyed online for a young girl to train as a sex slave and said he knew how to torture a child without leaving marks. The doctor received a year in jail [2].

Case 2: In January 2002, a 16 year-old girl was found tied up in the home of a Virginia man. The girl met her abductor on the Internet. Investigators report the man kidnapped the girl so he could have sex with her [2].

Case 3: In July 2003, former US Marine Toby Studabaker, 31, ran away to France with a 12-year-old British schoolgirl. Evidence shows that they had been in touch with each other for some time via email after making contact through an Internet chat room. This case received huge media coverage in Britain and rekindled concern about so-called "grooming" by adults who contact children via Internet chat rooms.

The content of the Internet and its capabilities arguably possess much greater risk and danger to children than that of television, movies and music. The primary reason for this is that these other influential media are often subjected to rigorous censorship legislation before they are in the grasp of children. The content of the Internet is widely unrestricted in what it offers or consists of. There is no age certification advertised on Websites and there is no prior deletion or censorship of information or material before it is published as a page. In essence any person can create a page and publish it immediately without any intermediary checks. The interactive nature of the Internet also distinguishes its dangers from traditional media. Communications can be held with different people from all walks of life, whether it is ethical or unethical.

The UK government strategy has been to educate parents through advertising campaigns and to teach awareness to children and parents through schools. Technology plays a part through applications that offer filtering and restrictions to sites with an offensive content. The shortfalls that plague these various strategies are the gaps found in parents' knowledge and lack of supervision of children using the Internet at home. Extensive research has shown that dangerous incidents that take place involving the Internet and chat rooms usually involve children who are unsupervised by parents whilst online and are equipped with little knowledge of the risks. Figures from the government report shows that 1 in 2 children are never supervised by the parent in their online activities and also 1 in 3 chat users who attended face-to-face meetings reported that they had not received any Internet safety advice from their parents [3]. A key finding of the report is that although a great deal of research and initiatives have been conducted and deployed in regards to online safety, further exploration is needed in the areas of parental knowledge and IT competency.

Current IT Solutions

A variety of technology-based tools for assisting in Internet safety are available on the market to parents, educational institutions and business organisations. Within the context of a family home, these tools can offer a degree of safety for unsupervised Internet access for children or security against a parent's lack of understanding of Internet usage by children. The tools are predominately IT devices or software that can help reduce or prevent a child from exposure to indecent material or experiences on the Internet.

Information and material from the Internet originates from a location or source. It must go through various processes before it reaches the user's screen. IT tools for safety come into effect at the intermediate stages of the process. There are several functions performed by software packages that instigate safety. The range includes monitoring, filtering, controlled access, age verification, Spam control and instant help. Filters are the most well-known and used of IT solutions. There are four general types of filter technology currently available to users:

* Client-side filters are those that are installed unto the user's hardware, i.e. a PC or laptop. This serves as the Internet access point. The software is installed in the same way as any other mainstream product, the only difference is that the uninstall feature is password-controlled. This prevents the software from being removed by the child, which would disable the filter. The person with the password is usually responsible for the administration of the settings and configurations of the program. The typical end-users for client-side filters are parents wishing to protect their children or entities such as libraries that are trying to segregate adult users of the Internet from younger users.

* Content-limited Internet service providers are another form of filtering technology. In this situation the ISP limits access to the Internet to pages that have been previously vetted against a safety criteria. All pages that are viewed are deemed as developmentally appropriate, educational and entertaining. This approach is known as "white listing". All pages that are not on the list are barred. Chat rooms and bulletin boards with inappropriate material are disallowed also. E-mail is restricted to specified addresses that the user allows.

* Server-side filters are focused at an organisational level as opposed to that of a private environment. They are concerned with facilitating the access policies to that defined by the organisation. A school may use server-side filtering to restrict access to sites from students at their workstations in a classroom.

* Search engine filters are a subset of server-side filters. Major search engines such as Google, Alta Vista and Yahoo have the capabilities to enable safety features for children whilst performing a search. The technology works by identifying inappropriate content both from the initial point of enquiry and from the requested site. Yahoo offers a version of its search engine with the GUI (graphical user interface) tailored for child usage.

A search of the Internet reveals that there are numerous software products available that offer different degrees of safety for young surfers. The software is usually split into to three categories: monitoring, blocking and controlled access. Email For Kids software produced by Connectsoft offers a blocking service for incoming and outgoing messages, regulates who communicates with your children and prevents personal disclosures. The Safe Search by InterGo Communications is a case where controlled access and blocking restricts child access to specific Websites. It limits chat and newsgroup access and uses a search engine that selects Websites by age appropriateness. It is purchased through a 12-month subscription fee of $49.95. This subscription gives parents a selection of options that are available to assist in their endeavours in protecting their children from online dangers. Internet safety software is not 100 percent guaranteed. Therefore parental technological know-how and monitoring might help to get maximum benefits from current Internet safety software.


AOL uses filtering through content-limiting initiatives. AOL's marketing strategy is focused at delivering a family orientated service. A key element to this approach is the parental control facilities that employ various levels of access dependent on the age of the user. AOL states, "Since children of all ages use AOL, we have created easy-to-use features to help parents make sure their children have a safe, fun and enriching experience online, while limiting access to some features of AOL and the Internet. AOL's parental controls allow parents to designate different levels of access for each child" (America Online 2002).

AOL provides three tiers of controlled access. "Kids Only", for children aged 12 and under, restricts children to selected areas of AOL and the Internet. "Young Teens", for children aged 13-15, offers more freedom than "Kids Only" but does not provide full access to content or interactive features. "Mature Teens", for children 16-17, allows full access to AOL and the Internet with a restriction to those sites that are deemed of an adult composition. AOL bolsters these safety efforts with a range of advertisements through a diverse selection of media including television. There appears to be sufficient amounts of technological answers to enable Internet safety for children. Software solutions may not be 100 percent effective in solving the problem but they offer an adequate additive to parental initiatives in protecting their children. A stumbling block to the technologies is that large percentages of parents do not deploy this as a strategy to Internet safety. AOL states that 52 percent of parents don't use the safety controls, even though they have improved in the past year [4].

There are several possibilities as to why parents do not use the tools available. Parents may lack knowledge of the contents that the Internet poses to children; this is an initial point of failure in the context of using technology as a solution. Also, lack in parental technical competencies has hindered the use of applying Internet safety technology. It comes without surprise that often children are more versed in technology and applications than their parents or caregivers.

A survey conducted by Family PC magazine in August 2001 found that of 600 families surveyed, 26 percent used parental controls of some kind. About 7 percent of those using parental controls (about 1.8 percent of the total) used off-the-shelf filtering packages. The rest used filtering offered by an Internet service provider [5]. Are parents equipped with the knowledge and capabilities of supervising their children? Do they understand and appreciate the true dangers that are associated with this technology? What of the complex areas of social positioning, ethnic cultures, and one-parent households? These questions will no doubt have influence on the type of advice or levels of technical competencies held by parents. It is commonplace to find a parent who has difficulty adjusting the settings on a digital clock or setting up a new video recorder. How much more effort would be required to set the necessary filter options on an Internet browser or even operate the basic functions on a PC?


The parent or caregiver who implements an IT solution is the person who ultimately will have the responsibilities to administer its functions, maintain its configuration and ensure that it has not been comprised by the child surfer. Can the existing software allow a user of very little IT knowledge to deploy it effectively? Are AOL's parental controls usable by parents from a wide and diverse social background? These are but a few of the questions that need to be addressed in order to begin to understand the reasons behind the shortfall in parents as end users deploying IT solutions in order to aid child Internet safety. As technology continues to become more complex, the safeguards used today may be severely out of date tomorrow [6]; therefore we need a model for best practices in creating Internet safety products and services. Furthermore, the software industry can use the model to produce software and IT tools that will be accessible, usable and effective to parents with varied technical competencies and little Internet safety knowledge. However, the question remains, Is child Internet access a questionable risk? The issues surrounding Internet security must be weighed against any potential business benefits.

[1] America Online (AOL) (2002), Parental Controls, [Accessed 21 March 2003].

[2] Dumanis, B.M. Inside the D.A.'s Office, County of San Diego, Protecting The Community: Protecting Children Online, [Accessed 12 Aug, 2003].

[3] England, Sub Group F Home Office Internet Task Force 2002, Young Peoples Use of Chat Rooms: Implications for Policy Strategies and Programs of Education

[4] Stone, B., Fryer, B.1998, "The Keyboard Kids", Newsweek, Vol.131, No.23, p. 272. Retrieved: 4 April 2003, From Business Source Premier Database.

[5] Computer science and telecommunications board National Research Council 2002, Youth Pornography, And the Internet, The National Academies Press. [Accessed 12 April 2003].

[6] Shoniregun, C.A. (2002), "The Future of Internet Security", Ubiquity: Journal of ACM, Volume 3, Issue 37, Oct / Nov.

Charles Adetokunbo Shoniregun, has taught in many universities and colleges in the UK. He is member of the research committee at the School of Computing and Technology (University of East London). He is a member of the British Computer Society (MBCS), Chartered Engineer (CEng), Information Risk Management and Audit (IRMA), Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and Fellow of: The Institution of Analysts and Programmers (FIAP) and The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (FRSA). His research interests are in the Internet security, risks assessment of technology enable information, electronic and mobile commerce (emC), telecommunications and applied information systems.

Andrew Anthony Anderson, is a Senior Support Officer at the London Borough of Westminster Social Services Children and Families Division. He has degrees from Surrey Institute of Art and Design and South Bank University. His research interests are in the efficiency of security software for the Internet.


Thank you for sharing such an amazing article.

��� Hinal, Thu, 19 Aug 2021 13:21:52 UTC

The internet is use by young children is not so important

��� xyx, Thu, 30 Jul 2015 16:14:10 UTC

Don't lower standards to appease careless baby factories. simply shut off access to minors the same way you restrict alcohol and cigerettes to anyone under 18 only instead of 18 make it 21 and require some sort of proof that they ARE over 21, more than just a CAPTCHA phrase because even kids know how to get around those safety measures or they simply have an adult do it for them. so restrict online access to minors and one problem solved. then teach them phonics and give them books not e-books.

��� age discrimination, Tue, 04 Jun 2013 08:42:15 UTC

sadly it's not that simple to say that children are victims alone and not predators online as well especially when those same "government agencies" and schools are the ones providing the education to hack and put nasty images and things like that ONTO another persons computer whom they deem as a target whether they are threatening or not. curb your kids by preventing them from even being online or simply unplug. go camping instead and teach them an actual skill. like survival not identity theft.

��� not that simple, Tue, 04 Jun 2013 08:36:42 UTC

you forgot to mention that children can be predators too and this "grooming" is not a "new evil". it didn't pop up when Atari did. Shame on you for relying on technology to raise your kids. stop your child from abusing terms of service when it clearly says 18 OR OVER! or simply keep the technology off and send them to the backyard to play instead. kids survived for 1000's of years without technology they will survive another 1000 without it.

��� childrenarepredatorstoo, Tue, 04 Jun 2013 08:32:00 UTC

This is a great cause of concern for a parent, and I myself am a parent and I will be very worried for when my children grow up and start to learn about the world of internet, but I will do everything in my power to teach them the rights and the wrongs about the Internet, it is so sad that many children are being subjected to exploitation by sick perverted adults, they should be given a life sentence when found guility, a years or a few years sentence will not do the justice, because within a few years or even a matter of months they will be released and out in the community looking to target more innocent children.

��� Chrisma, Wed, 28 Mar 2012 16:22:51 UTC

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