Chat (Messaging)

Instant messaging (IM) is a form of real-time text-based communication conveyed over a network, such as the internet, between two or more people on a user's contact list. Examples include Facebook, WhatsApp, Jabber, ICQ and AIM. IM technologies often include additional features that make them even more popular such as having the ability to talk directly for free; to share files; or to view the other party through a webcam.

WHAT IS A FRIENDS LIST (CONTACT LIST)?

In instant messaging applications, a buddy list (contact list, friends list) is a list of a user's contacts that they converse with through instant messaging. On such lists users can view if their contacts are online, offline, online but busy etc. Users can block contacts that they no longer wish to talk to.

WHAT IS A MESSAGE BOARD/CHAT ROOM?

A message board or chat room is an online forum where people can chat online (talk by broadcasting messages to people on the same forum in real time). Sometimes these venues are moderated either by limiting who is allowed to speak (not common), or by having moderation volunteers patrol the venue watching for disruptive or otherwise undesirable behaviour.

WHAT IS AN AVATAR?

An avatar is a graphical representation of a user. It can take the form of a 3D model of the user e.g. in computer games or a 2D icon e.g. on internet forums, chat rooms and instant messenger.

WHY DO CHILDREN USE MESSAGE BOARDS/CHAT ROOMS?

Message boards/chat rooms are usually areas where people meet to chat as they would in the real world in a youth club or bar. Young people love them because they are often unrestricted; and they can be exciting places to meet old and new friends.

WHY DO CHILDREN USE INSTANT MESSENGER (IM)?

Instant messenger is one of the most popular ways of chatting for young people. Often known as IM, this involves two or more people being online at the same time, and is different from chat rooms, because the people involved can only chat to people who are on their contact list. Young people often feel that they can talk more intimately in this environment, and often use their own text style language to do so. Most mobile phones have the ability to instant message and is free to do so.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS TO CHILDREN USING MESSAGE BOARDS/INSTANT MESSENGER?

Although chatting online can be great fun, young people can sometimes find themselves in situations where they can feel out of their depth. Risks can arise when young people give out their personal details to strangers. The online world can often seem very different to the real world for young people, and they can be tempted to say and do things that they wouldn't dream of if they met someone face to face. This can include giving out personal information such as mobile numbers and pictures of themselves. If they are talking to another child there is a risk that they will misuse this information—for example, by texting abusive messages to the child, or by posting their image on a website (Facebook, Instagram); but there is obviously a greater risk if the person that they are chatting to is an adult. 

Unfortunately, paedophiles use the internet, often with the intention of talking with and meeting a child. Young people can be naive to this risk, and often feel that they are invincible, or that 'they would know if someone was lying'. Young people will often 'swap friends' through IM, and therefore can be chatting to strangers who they feel they trust because a friend of a friend knows them. IM is a very intimate form of communication—more so than a chat room with many participants, and therefore child abusers will often use this as a means to extract personal information from a young person.

SHOULD MY CHILD HAVE AN EMAIL ACCOUNT?

Your child may ask to have their own email account. You need to think about whether they are old enough and mature enough to have an account that will provide them with some independence online, such as giving them the ability to register with websites. 

If your child is setting up an account, here are some simple steps you can take to help them use it safely and securely.

  • Set up the account with them – this will give you a good idea of what personal information has been asked for and the functionality of the account.
  • Check moderation possibilities – popular services such as Hotmail have parental controls to assist you with the moderation of the account. Some allow you to have a family account or moderation rights. This way you can see the emails received and the sites your child is registering on too. If this is not possible, you can share the password to the account, especially for younger age groups; this way you can moderate if you feel necessary. 
  • Ask your child to only email people they know and trust in the real world. 
  • Ask them to never click on emails from people they don’t know or links they don’t recognise, as they could contain a virus which will harm the computer, or take them to a site which is inappropriate. 
  • Encourage them to tell you if they see anything that upsets them online, because you can help them.

HOW CAN I MINIMISE THE RISKS TO MY CHILDREN?

You can minimise the risks by taking the following simple measures with your children: It is vital that you know if your child uses chat applications online, and that you emphasise to them the importance of keeping their personal information personal. 

  • If your child uses IM then it is a good idea to ask them to show you how it works—in this way you can also gauge who they have on their contact list and if there is anyone how they don't know in the real world. 
  • It is also a good idea to ask them if they know how to block someone who they no longer wish to talk to. 
  • You can also direct them to the Thinkuknow website, where they can watch films and play games on how to stay safer online. 
  • Consider creating some family rules which you will all agree to on online use, including not giving out personal information, or talking to strangers without discussing it. 
  • Remind your children that they should never meet up with someone that they have met online without you or another adult going with them.

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I AM STILL CONCERNED?

If you are concerned that your child may be at risk, it may be necessary to log or monitor their conversations, and this can be done though some forms of filtering software - but this should be considered carefully, since a child may feel that they have to hide more from their parents if they think they are not trusted. 

If you think your child may be in touch with an adult online make a report or call 999 if they are at immediate risk.