Protecting children in chat rooms

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(Host) Commentator Dianne Lynch has been thinking about Microsoft’s recent decision to limit access to on-line chat rooms. The encounter she describes really happened. The on-line names are approximations to protect the teenagers.

(Lynch) She calls herself UKnowUWantMe, and she’s 13 years old. I met her this weekend in an online chat room, where she was asking repeatedly if there were any hot guys who wanted to whisper her – which, in chat room parlance, means talk one-on-one outside the chat room.

Like all of the million children reported to use chat services, UKnowUWantMe has a profile associated with her screen name. Hers happens to include all of the information experts say kids should never reveal online: her real name, her home town, her photograph, and a list of her favorite activities – including soccer, basketball, and dancing with the right guy.

I wonder if her mother knows. I wonder if her mother would be surprised to learn that her 13-year-old daughter calls herself UKnowUWantMe in online chat rooms. I wonder if her mother knows that her 13-year-old daughter is not only willing but eager to whisper with anybody who happens to wander by in cyberspace.

Microsoft announced last week that it’s shutting down its chat rooms in 28 countries around the world, and will allow only paying customers to chat in the United States, Canada and Japan. Cynics responded that Microsoft was shutting down its services not to protect our children, but to save its bottom line.

Insisting that chatters submit their credit card information is one way to keep tabs on who’s using the services – but it’s also an effective strategy for transforming MSN freeloaders into paying customers.

Microsoft officials say that wasn’t the motivation. They say they’ve finally had it with the spam, and the pornography, and the pedophiles who lurk in online chat rooms, grooming our children for sexual abuse.

Experts say there’s plenty of reason for concern. A study last year reported that kids log on for social reasons, to fill the long hours between school and bedtime. They multi-task: they type a history essay while they listen to music while they check their e-mail while they Instant Message with their friends.

And they’re more than willing to chat – with friends and strangers alike. Close to 60% of teens said they’ve been e-mailed or IM’d by strangers, and 50% say they’ve responded. More troubling, one in five kids said they’d been the victims of sexual solicitation.

It almost always involved a stranger, it usually happened while the child was at home, and only 25% of kids told their parents about it.

More recently, the FBI reports that there have been 133,000 child pornography cases and 9,000 incidents of sexual enticement online – all in the last five years – and that’s just the relatively small number that gets reported. Two-thirds of the victims were girls, and three-quarters were between the ages of 14 and 17.

These are kids with real names like Sarah and Justin and Jennifer, who have online screen names like SexyCutie and SexyBoy and UKnowUWantMe. These are the kids who live next door, who get good grades in middle school, who sing in the church choir, and who are out there on the Internet, eager to whisper with anybody who’s willing.

I wonder if their parents know. And I wonder – if it were my child, would I?

This is Dianne Lynch in Richmond.

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