Don't ban the chat, control it
Microsoft's decision last month to withdraw its open-access internet chat rooms was greeted with enthusiasm by children's charities. But chat rooms are clearly not going to disappear, and neither are the risks they seem to represent. So what are the positive alternatives to simply banning them?
There is growing concern about the dangers of the internet for children.
Media reports of child abductions frequently seize on any technological connection - even when (as in the case of the Soham murders) such connections prove quite false. If we are to believe the popular press, the internet is now infested with hordes of predatory paedophiles seeking to seduce children at the click of a mouse.
Sociologists often dismiss this concern as a "moral panic". They argue that the incidence of such crimes is hugely overstated, and that the reporting of them creates an atmosphere of unnecessary fear. That fear in turn justifies restrictions on children's freedom - and indeed on the freedom of adult users of the internet.
While it can be dangerous, the internet is safer than many other potentially risky situations children might encounter. Is it safer for teenage girls to encounter older men in a club than in a chat room? Are not most crimes against children committed in the home? And indeed, will the world ever be free of such risks?
In any case, the attempt to prevent children gaining access to such technologies is becoming a lost cause. The internet is beyond the control of national governments, and self-regulation by industry is also problematic.
Prosecuting internet service providers for harmful content on the web is rather like prosecuting BT when people make obscene telephone calls.
The solution here is to develop informed consumers who are capable of making their own choices and protecting themselves. This is what Ofcom, the new super-regulator, appears to mean by "media literacy". Children, it is argued, need to learn to deal with the risks of technology if they are to reap its potential ben-efits, not least in respect of education.
How do we achieve this? We have been developing positive educational responses to concerns about internet safety with children aged nine to 15.
Our research shows that children already know a good deal about basic dangers on the web. Urban myths, particularly about paedophiles, abound in the schools we observed, and every group of children we interviewed had seen the extensive media coverage of internet risks.
However, children reported little personal experience with risk. The anonymity of chat rooms offered them a space for play, just as younger children enjoy trying out roles in their fantasy play.
Yet the novelty value offered by chat rooms quickly wore off, as children moved on to instant messaging. In the longer term, children are more interested in developing their existing relationships (through instant messaging) rather than attempting to develop online relationships with strangers.
Our research is part of a pan-European programme called Educaunet. This project, which involves seven countries, is developing a course in internet risk awareness for use by schools, parents and community groups. The course regards risk as an inevitable part of the web and aims to educate rather than preach.
An example of this approach is an activity where classes enter a closed chat room under an assumed identity. They play a game of "guess who", trying to figure out the real identity of peers through questioning.
Through this activity we could discuss with pupils how questioning works in chat rooms, the pleasures and risks of assuming a false identity and the contrasting joys of instant messaging.
We would argue that internet literacy is about more than promoting safety.
It is about developing a much broader confidence and understanding in using media.
A simplistic safety education approach is not only redundant, it also fails to engage with the complexity of children's interactions on the internet.
Nothing is gained by endlessly warning them about things they already know far too well.
Taking risks is an essential part of developing maturity, and is indispensable to learning. In their dealings with technology, as in many other areas, young people may positively need to take risks. The issue is how we help them in that process.
The authors are based at the centre for the study of children, youth and media at London's Institute of Education, www.ccsonline.org.uk/mediacentrewww.educaunet.org/