Chat Rooms Are Dangerous Essay Typer

A growing number of parents are worried about their children when they are on the internet, given the lurid nature of certain teenage chatrooms and the ease with which adults can infiltrate what are supposed to be teenage-only preserves. Most schools run such well-filtered and protected systems that their pupils cannot get anywhere harmful, but at home it's a different story.

Most of the big internet service providers run a "chatroom" system with headings such as sport, business, over-50s or teens. People adopt a user name such as Naughty Angel or Rude Rodent and enter a room with up to 150 other users. A constant babble of typing is going on in the main window where everyone can see and respond to everyone else. Usually the hosts (service providers) supervise the main chatrooms, where they root out bad language or sexy talk and ban offenders. Sadly, though, even here not everything is supervised. You can "whisper" to an individual, ie hold a private conversation with someone in a separate window, and these are uncensored. This is where the real danger lies - it is quite easy for a newcomer to say, for instance, that they are a 16-year-old lad, but in fact turn out to be a 55-year-old paedophile.

In fact, in Microsoft Network (MSN) chatrooms, anyone can be a host and create their own chatroom, which operate under titles such as Hot Teens!, Teens Flirting! and Young Girls Chatting to Older Men. These rooms appear to be unsupervised and the host is responsible for behaviour in the room. You have to apply for membership for chatrooms hosted by service providers, giving your date of birth. Only teens can enter teen sites, and, ironcially, parents and teachers who ought to visit these sites no longer can because of these very restrictions.

So what are they being restricted from? A newcomer cannot fail to notice the striking openness and honesty between respondents - they feel safe in their anonymity so they have no reason to lie. But a worrying aspect is the large number of cries for help. Broken families and moving away from relatives mean kids often have no one to turn to for help. Many do not feel able to go to a teacher, and most do not belong to a church or other religious organisation so have no support there either. School counsellors cannot be trusted as they may tell their problems to the school or parents. Alex, 16, said he will "never trust a counsellor again" after his parents were told of his problems.

What's worse, many teenagers are floundering. A new morality is rearing its head that has its own rules. Many teenagers in these chatrooms take the term "having sex" to mean full, penetrative sex. Any other sexual activity seems acceptable at 12 years old, although most "chatroomers" indulge from 14-15 years. Experimenting with lesbian, or bisexual activity, has also become increasingly common. This is apparently "OK" and, if that is all they have done, the new morality does not believe they have had "sex". There are no feelings of right or wrong; the only test is whether both partners feel happy about it. The results of a survey published recently on the BBC children's website showed that 85% of teens thought "snogging" in a school corridor was "OK".

The worst sin now is "two-timing"; the rule is one boyfriend to one girlfriend. The second worst is not being honest with each other. My research suggests most girl respondents seem to have sex at 15-16 years, usually with an older lad of 18-20, and this is considered normal. Although a girl's partner is usually two to three years older, heterosexual relations are often between girls of 15-17 and men of 22-25 years. Jayne, 17, told me that she has a 35-year-old taxi-driver boyfriend, who is divorced. She said she wanted a more loving and stable relationship than males of her own age could give.

Faced with an upside-down set of values, where do desperate teenagers turn? They often cannot get through to the underfunded ChildLine, and numerous searches for "Teen Help" found no professional sites, although the NSPCC has a one and runs a helpline and email service. The award-winning site, Pupiline, is run by a 16-year-old who was being bullied at school. It has a lot of good information on it, and an email help line.

One of the MSN UK Teen chat rooms has "!!!! Advice Room for Teens" which is staffed by teens. It opens every evening for help and has around 100 visits a week. It also has a site with information on a wide range of topics from eating disorders and abuse to self-harming and pregnancy. There is email support, a discussion notice-board and links to other useful sites. Boy-girl relationships are the commonest problems, but pregnancy, eating disorders, depression, suicidal feelings and "cutting" (self-harm) ones are frequent.

Pressure of exams is increasing, but bullying and abuse rarely arise. The most frightening thing is how many girls report rape. A typical story relates how 15-year-old Gem was at a club flirting with "a guy of 22". They went outside to cool off and kiss. But before she knew it, she was being raped. He did not use a condom. Gem told no one, not even her best friend. She did not know if she was pregnant or infected, and it was weeks before she could even tell someone online. After several online discussions she was persuaded to go to her doctor she was healthy, and not pregnant. Then the adviser asked her if there was an adult she could trust to talk to about it, and she came back a week later to say she had "told her mum who had been great".

Another case was Sarah, 15. She became constantly depressed, ate very little and when she felt low she cut her arms with a razor. Her parents were always arguing, she said. She felt they hated her and she was afraid they may break up. Sarah used to be good at school, but her work began to deteriorate. She needed professional help, but would not tell anyone.

The adviser gave her ChildLine and Samaritan telephone numbers to call, but when she returned to the advice room another day she said that she tried, "but her voice just wouldn't work". She kept coming back to the help room and got understanding, comfort and support. Last week reported that she "hadn't cut herself for two whole weeks!" She emailed her adviser saying: "Thanks very much for all the advice you have given me these past few weeks. I really need to get things sorted."

Ealing Youth Service has a Youth2Youth website and email support service, and has trained young people who run a telephone help line twice a week. Peter Bradley is the clinical supervisor for the Y2Y service which has been running for three years, and has just received a £125,000 lottery grant to expand. He says it aims to supply a "quality listening service" although the demand for advice is so great. The main problems he finds are boy-girl relationships and parent problems, but, surprisingly, not drugs. Depression is a concern; one client has a 54-page dossier.

Advice online can work, and it need not cost too much. Demand is great and it just needs more caring teachers and adults to set up other websites and support lines to meet it.

These findings are based on research by the author in chats with more than 200 young people over four months. All names used have been changed.

peter.palmer@hotmail.co.uk

Further information

• ChildLine 0800 11 11

• NSPCC Kids Zone: 0808 800 5000 and www.nspcc.org.uk

• Ealing Youth Service: Youth2Youth: 020 8896 3675 (every Tues and Thurs, 6.30-9.30pm only); and www.youth2youth.co.uk

• Advice Room for Teens: chat.msn.co.uk

• Teens Chat rooms; !!!! Advice Room for Teens (from 7pm) and HelpRoom for information

• /communities.msn.com/helproom

• Pupiline (especially for bullying): www.pupiline.net

• Superhighway Safety: Safe use of the Internet is a free pack published by the Department for Education and Becta, covering issues such as acceptable use policies and setting up school websites. It also advises on filtering systems, internet monitoring organisations and intellectual property and copyright.

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