“Ghosty” is a network-enabled monitoring device aimed at encouraging discussion in families about children’s internet use, and/or enabling children to better self-monitor their own internet use, in order to promote and reinforce positive internet use and resilience against online predators. It allows children or other household members to know what types of websites or networks are being visited or used, rather than specifics of particular websites or conversation details. The device can show internet access according to type delineation (such as “homework”, “social”, “email”), or by risk level by varying the colour shown by LEDs within a lamp. It is aimed at being an ethics-centred device, with the child’s privacy paramount in its design.
Online child protection approaches can be split into two parts: the first being prevention of crimes occurring and the second being the finding, arresting, and prosecuting of offenders. The former has traditionally relied on deterrence (from prosecutions), education of children as to their safety online, and monitoring and/or filtering devices for home and school networks. The latter relies on sophisticated software used by law enforcement for tracking paedophile behaviour, such as Peer Precision or the Isis Project, as well as traditional policing methods to identify potential abusers and distributors of child sexual abuse material online.
Although the latter approach is useful in apprehending paedophiles, an approach that helps children avoid child abuse situations in a proactive way is needed. To achieve this, we need methods and mechanisms for prevention of offences, most of which currently centre on supervision of children on the internet, such as parental education (which suggests that computers should be kept in a public part of the house, or that parents should supervise their children on the internet). Monitoring and filtering tools such as Net Nanny have also appeared, allowing parents to set limits on internet use, email them on keywords used during a child’s internet session, or block certain websites or services.
The problems with traditional monitoring and filtering devices are numerous, particularly from an ethical perspective:
- They can cause distrust in family relationships, when a child rebels against such filtering or monitoring systems;
- They can trigger false positives and block innocent content;
- They can lull parents (and children) into a false sense of security about online safety;
- They can impinge on the privacy of the child, by emailing a parent when a child uses a key word, for example, or simply allowing a parent to view all chat text; and
- They can cause a child to become more secretive about their behaviour online, to name a few.
Social networking has also come into the spotlight in recent times, to the degree that the UK child protection agency CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) produced a Facebook “emergency button” application for children worried about others’ behaviour online. The “ClickCEOP” application allows children to report suspicious activity toward them on Facebook as well as learn about safe internet practices.
Recent research has come to light showing that many children are not at all vulnerable to online predators: these young people who are approached are, in this way, “resilient”, telling potential offenders to go away. However, there is a smaller group of young people, the “disinhibited”, who are often willing to interact with offenders and engage with them due to various reasons, such as negative self-esteem, parental problems, difficulties at school, loneliness, tendency to self-harm, or familial sexual abuse. They can, in some cases, use sexual names or actively seek sexual encounters with people online. These are ideal targets for paedophiles seeking relationships with children with the possibility for future contact offences(1).
Although parents might be concerned about their child’s safety online, they may consider the current monitoring software available to be too intrusive on their children’s privacy: instead of intense scrutiny provided by current monitoring software they may wish to engender a stronger trust relationship with their child by allowing the child to self-monitor for risk or the family to “keep an eye on” the lamp colours to have a general idea about what the child is doing in a way that is akin to knowing where a child may be playing but not necessarily what he or she is up to specifically.
More generally, we wish to enable more families to foster a sense of resilience in their children, particularly those who have the potential to become more resilient. Our project also aims to reinforce resilience amongst children who are already resilient, allowing for parents to loosely monitor their internet activity without knowing details, but using this knowledge to spur positive conversation and discussion amongst family members, or allowing children to self-monitor to gauge their level of risk. In this way the device aims to be an ethical monitoring tool used in a very specific way to enable resilience amongst children and allow for greater family bonds which could help prevent disinhibition.
(1) Davidson, J. Understanding online offending behavior: Preliminary findings from the European Online Grooming Project. Online Child Protection: Future Technologies for Policing the Internet. London (2010) http://european-online-grooming-project.com/