Online chat is not dangerous

by Martin Reed on 30 April 2007 in Articles

I was going through some of my old files the other day and came across an old article I had written for Just Chat in response to MSN’s decision to close its chat rooms back in 2003. MSN claimed this move was in response to concerns about child safety in online chat, although many suspected (myself included) that this was a purely financial move. After all, there are many cases of online grooming taking place via messenger applications – closing chat rooms alone will not prevent such incidents from occurring.

Our official response is still relevant today, and I include it below:

The decision of Microsoft to close the majority of its chat operations is a controversial one. Many outspoken opponents of online chat rooms have welcomed the decision and say this is a positive thing for the Internet and children. We disagree.

Online chat does not come without danger, but neither do an uncountable number of alternative pastimes. Opponents say online chat is simply not safe, is not needed, and is nothing but a danger to children and a stalking ground for paedophiles. Closing chat rooms is quite simply not the answer, and has the potential to do more harm than good.

Closing chat sites will only send vulnerable users elsewhere. Young people will look to communicate with others via mobile phone text chat, or voicemail chat for example. These cannot be monitored as easily as online chat, therefore the potential risks are much higher.

Whilst Microsoft is a popular chat provider, there are many alternatives out there for people to use. Chat sites if used sensibly, can be remarkably safe. No physical contact is made between the people chatting unless a user makes a conscious decision to meet. What we need are for chat sites to provide clear safety advice and highlight the potential dangers of online chat.

Parents need to supervise children when they are online and take responsibility over what their children can and cannot do when using the Internet. We don’t allow young children to wander the streets unaccompanied – why should it be any different when it comes to using the Internet, especially when opponents preach over how dangerous it supposedly is.

We agree that chat sites aimed at children should be constantly monitored. Chat sites should make it very clear what audience they are aiming towards, and always provide clear chat safety advice.

Removing such a fundamental part of the Internet is uncalled for and unnecessary. Online chat is enjoyed by many each day, and can be a much needed source of company and communication. When you compare the number of people who enjoy online chat to the number of victims of physical abuse as a result, the number simply does not justify its destruction.

Saying all chat sites are dangerous and should be closed is absolutely ludicrous. Paedophiles may stalk childrens’ playgrounds and schools – does this mean we should close all playgrounds in response to such a risk? Should we ban the car due to the number of children killed as a direct result of cars being on the road?

Online chat is not to blame for paedophilia – it has been around far longer than the Internet. Closing online chat will simply shift the problem elsewhere. We need to look at things in perspective and not jump on the popular bandwagon that says online chat is dangerous and evil. It brings joy to a countless number of people every day and will continue to do so with or without Microsoft.

Just Chat is not aimed at children, therefore we do not fully moderate our chat forums. We do employ volunteer ChatGuides who help out chatters and enforce our rules as necessary. We also include prominent and clear safety messages strongly advising people not to reveal personal information or arrange to meet people offline.

Online chat does not have to be dangerous – people simply need to be better educated and more aware of the online world, and this case is still just as relevant today.

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Chino Yray May 4, 2007 at 9:13 am

it is not aimed for children however, children might still accidentally stumbled to the site. I do agree though that it is a financial move for microsoft. Promoting their messenger more since there are ads showing up in the messenger.

Martin Reed May 4, 2007 at 11:36 am

You are right that children may well still stumble into our chat forums. All we can do is make it clear the site is only for those over the age of 18 (there is no way of gaining access to the chat forums without being made aware of this). We also have voluntary Chat Guides as an additional safety measure.

Pankaj May 4, 2007 at 2:25 pm

I absolutely agree with you. We run the world’s only chat room dedicated to chatting on cricket and our members have a a great time there. We sometimes do have a little bit of a problem with some members getting animated during a live match but we are able to handle it through our great moderation team

Martin Reed May 4, 2007 at 3:46 pm

Hey Pankaj – thanks for your comment. I think as long as you have a good moderation team, online chat is a lot safer than a night out on the town! Best of luck with your site.

Marcy November 10, 2007 at 9:01 pm

I am an adult that has been a victim of nasty online groups. It doesn’t necessarily happen to just children.
Criminals, and groups of criminals, who target unassuming victims have free reign on the internet, and it is completely different from playgrounds, or other public arenas. They can easily hide their identity and even fake their way up to being moderators, and it is NOT PHYSICAL FROM THE START, as would be if a pedophile is seen in person, which makes it far far more dangerous. My opinion is that any kind of open chat is unnecessary, as the bad things that can happen far outweigh the good. People become addicted to chatting, and stop living healthy lives. I’m not being accusatory here, just speaking the truth of what I have seen in chatting groups, and the ways I have been violated. I have chosen to stop going into open chats, but how does that stop the violators from continuing..and in fact growing larger..if people continue to feed into their games?

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 12, 2007 at 6:12 pm

Marcy – Thanks for your comment. The fact is, if someone gives you problems online it is easy to take action; you simply leave the chat room or the website in question. Additionally, if you follow safety advice like that which is prominently displayed throughout Just Chat, you will not have released any personal information.

Awful things happen from people meeting in nightclubs – does that mean that any kind of open nightclub is unnecessary? Children are snatched from parks – does this mean parks should be banned?

Of course not – people just need to be aware of the dangers. The online world carries just as many risks as the offline world, and a failure to recognise this is the reason why some people end up in unpleasant situations.

chat February 6, 2008 at 5:19 am

Hello Martin Reed,

I agree that online chat rooms are not as dangerous as other elements affecting us in our real lives. Like you said kids can get snatched from parks, schools etc. Parents just need to educate their kids not to meet stangers in person; Not at parks and not on the internet.

I used to love Msn chat and used it on a regular basis. The shut down duo to chat being unsafe really was a kick in the stomach for me.

Thanks for the insightful post, i am glade other chat webmasters agree that online chat can be safe with moderate moderation and educational information in keeping safe online.

I am so glade I found your blog and find it extremely resourceful (I have bookmarked it). I believe i could learn from a successful chat/ online community webmaster like you!

Thank you,

Martin Reed - Blog Author February 7, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Chat – Thanks for your comment; I am glad you enjoyed the article. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say in the future. What’s your real name, by the way?

Funny SMS June 30, 2008 at 3:32 pm

As your kids get older, they should be permissible some privacy. The aim is to help them to surf the Internet sensibly and to help them find out how to guard them from danger. Repeat them never to hand out private information such as cell numbers, PPS number, passwords or their real identity or address and give them confidence to talk to you if they are worried or anxious by something they have experienced or read on the internet or chat rooms.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 17, 2008 at 1:34 am

SMS – Children do have the right to a certain degree of privacy, but when it comes to them interacting online, parents need to take an active interest in their activities. Education is great, but it needs to be backed up with parents getting involved with what their children do when online.

Lukasz Piotrowski July 17, 2008 at 6:07 pm

With all the recent gruesome stories in the US now, it’s becoming more and more obvious that the web is becoming more and more dangerous.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 23, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Lukasz – I don’t think the Web is becoming more dangerous; I simply think that because more people are using it, the number of incidents is also increasing. As a percentage of the total number of Internet users, it is still evident that the Internet need not be considered a dangerous place – it is a public arena and consequently people need to take the same safeguards online as they do offline.

JohnFullham February 14, 2009 at 9:46 pm

I think its a good point for parents to take the onus of responsibility for online education for their children. The Internet I like to think of being similiar to the outside world. Use of common sense will always keep you and your loved ones out of trouble but not checking before you cross the street might be dangerous as well.

Tom February 17, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I always emphasize this point on my safety page & chatting advice page.

The first thing you need to learn is that chat rooms are as safe as you make them. Don’t be intimidated by stories in the press. If you use a little common sense then chat rooms are perfectly safe. For safety advice, click here.

And I like this that I show on the safety page……

C – Careful! People online may not be who they say they are.

H – Hang on to your personal information. Never give people your phone number, address, where you work etc.

A – Arranging to meet somebody off the internet is dangerous, if you are arranging to meet make sure you are 120% certain of who they are, and even then only meet in a public place with a friend or even better, a group of friends.

T – Tell any staff member of Friendly Chat if you come across something that makes you feel uncomfortable within our community, we will be more than happy to help.

And it’s all just basic common sense.

To stay safe while using chat rooms all you need is a little common sense. Like any town or city, you’ll get the good; the bad & the ugly. There are simple ways to deal with this and minimize the risk of your chatting experience becoming a bad one.

* Don’t give out personal information
* Don’t give out your surname
* Don’t give out your residential address or phone number
* Don’t give out personal details about yourself, your life, your family, your children etc

People aren’t always who they say they are. No matter how well you think you know a chatter, be very cautious before giving out any information close to your heart.

A little common sense goes a long way when it comes to chat rooms. As long as you care about your community, it’ll be a safe one. Just educate your users, de-fuse the scaremongering and replace it with reminders of common sense and everyone will be fine.

Linda Chou April 9, 2009 at 2:07 am

I agree with the points made above. Virtually anything can be dangerous to kids that aren’t taught to act properly. A simple home can be very dangerous place for an infant. The internet isn’t becoming more dangerous. If anything it’s actually becoming safer with it becoming more common, safeguards are put in place, safe behaviour is taught earlier, and so on.

Anne Footalee June 12, 2009 at 1:13 am

Children just need to be educated on the dangers of online chat. Parents need to take the time to educate them properly.

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