JimKenThe last few days have seen a flurry of activity and media comment on the dangers that the internet and the use of mobile technology pose for children and young people. Here Jim Kennedy discusses some of the wider and perhaps under-recognised implications of these developments:

Firstly there was the announcement that Google and Microsoft will introduce new software that will prevent searches for child abuse imagery delivering access to such material.

Secondly, the charity, Parents Against Child Exploitation (Pace), published the results of a YouGov survey on professional and parental perspectives of child sexual exploitation. That report – ‘Are Parents in the Picture?’ – included significant reference to the developing use of technology in general, and to children’s use of mobile phones, in particular.

Thirdly, NSPCC published a report on younger children’s – that is 11 and 12 year-olds – use of social networking sites. The report is based on a wider survey of 1024 children aged 11–16 years old of whom 28% were in the younger category.

Having looked at the two reports and at the media comment on the Google and Microsoft decision, the best conclusion I can come to is that, in child protection terms, this is fast developing territory that we certainly need to understand better than we do, but the rush to conclusions needs to be tempered with more thought, and subject to much wider debate.

For example, much of the reaction to the decision on new software safeguards has suggested that it will have a limited effect on determined paedophiles, who, is it is alleged, use other hidden means to seek out the images they crave.

And we need to think through the implications of some of the findings of the two reports, noted above. The Pace report, in particular, deals with parental and professional concerns about child sexual exploitation that go much wider than the use of new technologies; and the NSPCC report throws light on wider-than-sexual abuse opportunities for cruelty, offered by the use of social networking sites.

I think the need for on-going debate and discussion is illustrated in a number of ways across the two reports particularly where they highlight some of the dilemmas and balanced relationship issues with which parents and professionals are having to grapple.

The growing use of social networking sites and mobile phones is unstoppable – and both bring huge benefits – as well as dangers to children and young people. Social life now depends on them in a way that would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. The NSPCC report, for example suggest that many 11 and 12 year olds enrol on social networking sites as part of their transition to secondary school and as a way of making connections in a much bigger and more challenging world.

The Pace report says that the average at which children receive a mobile phone is 11, and that 84% of 12 year olds have one. But it notes that professionals are, in general, more worried about the dangers of mobile phone use that are parents.

The report also suggests that levels of understanding of child sexual exploitation, more generally, are not so high among teachers, and parents feel even less knowledgeable. Even so, parents were much more likely to have talked to children about the risks posed by strangers and the internet, than to have discussed, those posed by mobile phones.

And, when it comes to doing something concrete to monitor and control mobile phone use, some of the suggested steps to increase protection show just what difficult territory this is, with 56% of parents thinking that monitoring of children’s texts (9-14 year-olds) was intrusive.

I have one further thought to offer on the speed and complexity of the changes we are seeing, and on the need for really widespread debate about the way forward. Social networking sites and mobile phones are now part of the people’s real emotional worlds. We need to recognise that, and since that is the case, we need to think more widely about the children who may suffer, rather than gain from, that part of their life.

And we need to ask ourselves, to what extent, is it that group of children who are at most significant risk of serious abuse? In other words, we may need to more clearly redefine our concepts of increased vulnerability to include the experiences of children in the virtual (increasingly real) world: if I am made unhappy in that world (whatever my wider experiences), am I more likely to expose myself to the risk of real abuse?