Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Are Chat Rooms A Menace To Your Children?

Are chat rooms a menace to your children?

My answer would be: yes, with qualifications.

I’ve been running internet chat rooms since 1998. Nothing fancy. The software was freely available. I just had to make some important modifications: adding bad word filters and automated ’kicking’ (ejection from the rooms).

You think free speech is a good thing, until you read what anonymous, malevolent young men say to fifteen-year-old girls. It isn’t Shakespeare, let me tell you that.

That’s another key point: anonymity. A pillar of the free speech argument. Let freedom fighters and the repressed masses have their say! Except it’s more likely a twenty-five-year-old sociopath pretending to be sixteen and making young girls cry with his sickening profanity.

Free from all social restrictions, and safe from physical retribution, we see the contents of the subconscious pour forth unrestrained. And a hellish stream of psychic sewage it is.

This can be combated by bad word filters and having human moderators. The most important shield of all, I think, is education. "Don’t take candy from strangers", "You don’t need drugs until you’re ill", and now: "Don’t bandy words with trolls" (people who deliberately upset other internet users with provocative language).

Most chat rooms now have an ’ignore’ function. It’s a bit like the hooligan in the street: he’s *looking* for a reaction; if you ignore him, it’s infuriating. To him. You glide on by, figuratively speaking, while he rants on unheard.

Parents should take an interest in what their children are doing online. See if you can find out what service they’ve joined, and join up yourself; get a taste of it. Teenagers define themselves as adults-to-be by choosing a different path to their parents: if you are conservative, they’ll try liberalism, and vice-versa.

Therefore, you shouldn’t try to join in with their activities as an equal; just keep informed.

They may gripe, but secretly they’re glad you care. A parent who lets their child do whatever they want gives them no standard to measure themselves against.

Another problem with basic chat rooms is that you can develop an intense relationship with someone you can’t see and haven’t met in the flesh; there’s a fantasy element. Your thoughts pour forth freely, you believe you’ve met a soul mate. You may even meet them, and the illusion continues …

… until you eventually realise he or she is just a human being after all, and breaks wind like everyone else.

There is hope, however. With the advent of cheap digital video cameras, internet telephony and broadband, people will be less able to hide: "What do you mean, you’re shy? You weren’t shy a minute ago!". Old-fashioned, sensible prejudices will assert themselves: "Soooo, ’Zorro’ from Cambridge is really fat, spotty Darren from Dartford … next!".


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