Keep safe on the internet

In September of 1998, Rape Crisis Auckland convened the first meeting of a group of business, school, community group and law enforcement representatives to develop strategies to educate about Internet risks and safety issues. The Internet Safety Group (ISG) was born.

The ISG has created the first national initiative on Internet safety in the world and continues, with its many endeavors, to set a high standard for other nations on how to raise awareness of Internet risks and educate about those risks in a positive and pro-active manner. They have a website – www.netsafe.org.nz – with resources for young people, parents, schools and others.

What are the personal safety risks on the Net?

The area where people are at greatest risk is in chat rooms. For example, a twelve year old boy in Wellington may happily give out his address and phone number to his new friend, a thirteen year old boy in Kaitaia, not knowing that he has actually just given his contact details to a 62-year-old convicted sex offender living just 20 minutes drive away. The same could be true for the 32 year old woman who thinks she has found the perfect romantic partner on the Net, but the man conveniently forgot to mention his five convictions for sexual violation.

When you get to know someone in ‘real’ life, it takes time to trust that they are being honest about themselves and their intentions. In face-to-face interactions we pick up a lot of intuitive clues about a person, such as their body language, the way they dress, the look in their eyes. In phone conversations, we at least have the sound of their voices to help get a sense of someone.

In text messages and Internet conversations (e-mail, instant messages, or chat room exchanges) a person can choose any persona they want. There is no way to know if someone is being honest about his or her age, or even gender. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind if you decide you want to pursue a new friendship further. By simply being cautious you can enjoy all of the social aspects of the Net safely.

There are some very simple strategies you can use when you want to drop anonymity in an Internet relationship. If you are a young person, check it out with your parents or caregivers before you send someone on the Net any personal information, and certainly ask for help if you want to set up a meeting with that person. If you are of the age where you don’t need parental permission for social activities, caution in setting up meetings is still very important.

It can be a good idea to arrange to meet people you have met on the Net or through text messaging in a very public space with a good number of people present – like a café, mall, youth centre, etc. You can each bring a friend(s) to the first meeting. You can let friends or family know of the meeting, and can take a cell phone in case there is any problem. It’s not always a good idea to go to such a meeting by yourself, and be very suspicious if someone starts insisting you come alone. Any new friend worth having would understand your initial caution and would be feeling that way themselves.

It is good to keep in mind the statistic that most sexual violence occurs in the home of the survivor or the home of the offender. To stay safe, keep early interactions in public places and with a group of friends if possible.

Bullying, Harassing, and Stalking

Interactions on the Net can sometimes take a nasty turn. People who seemed ‘nice’ can start being very aggressive. It is good to immediately log off from an exchange that doesn’t feel good. You don’t have to respond to anyone on the Net.

Sometimes though the messages come anonymously. We all naturally assume a level of privacy on the Internet that doesn’t exist; people can easily get your contact details and start sending you unwanted communications. This can include unsolicited advertising, pornography and, in the most serious situations, disturbing or threatening messages. This threatening behaviour is often referred to as ‘cyber stalking’.

No one has to put up with harassment on the Net. If you are a young person, go to your parent or caregiver, older sibling, teacher, guidance counsellor or an adult that you trust and get some help. In New Zealand, there are two Acts which cover harassment or threatening behaviour: the Crimes Act and the Harassment Act. The Police can help track who is sending these messages and get it stopped. Often it turns out the harasser/stalker is someone known to the victim. If you are an adult, contact the Police yourself and they can work with your Internet Service Provider to track the offender.

What’s happening on the Net here in New Zealand?

The Internet Safety Group conducted a survey, ‘Girls on the Net’, which was released in March, 2001. The entire survey is on the Netsafe website.

The results of ‘Girls on the Net’ showed that 33.5% had met someone face-to-face that they first met online and 32% went to that meeting alone. Also, 22.5% reported feeling unsafe or threatened on the Net. The majority of the threats reported were ‘implied sexual threats’.

There is no behaviour on the Net that you cannot find in ‘real’ life. You will find wonderful, caring people and ruthless sexual predators. By taking things slowly and being cautious, you can find those caring people and establish many worthwhile new friendships safely.

Phone text messaging

In 2004 the Internet Safety Group released a pamphlet with Vodafone called ‘TXT Bully’.  This contains information for young people around keeping safe from harassment and bullying when texting each other using their mobile phones.  This form of text bullying has become increasingly common in intermediate and secondary schools.  Unwanted messages may also include picture messages that make the receiver feel uncomfortable.  Young people are advised to be careful about who they disclose their contact details to and not to reply to anonymous text or picture messages.  Any person can choose to use their phone to bar or ignore incoming calls that they do not want to receive.