Each week we face sensationalist media headlines about the danger of online predators and paedophiles who stalk the internet to prey on children.
These fuel the culture of fear that gathers pace with each new story - frightening parents who feel powerless as many are nowhere near as net savvy as their offspring.
The British government-commissioned Byron Review, published recently, is in part a response to this fear. Dr Tanya Byron has adopted a sensible approach to helping protect minors in a digital age, but the report will no doubt be taken out of context, inadvertently helping to drive the call for censorship and curbs on the freedom to disseminate information.
Headlines such as "Millions of girls using Facebook, Bebo and Myspace 'at risk' from paedophiles and bullies" (Daily Mail, April 2008) help little in finding a level of regulation and child protection that will benefit online communities. This climate has led in the US to a raft of bills that offer little protection to the millions of minors in virtual worlds. For example, it is now illegal for someone under the age of 18 in the state of Georgia to register for a social networking site without parental permission. This neither offers protection to minors nor educates parents in offering children guidance.
The British government is now proposing a bill to force registered sex offenders to hand over their email addresses. Anyone can open an email account using any name and remain anonymous, so monitoring a database of addresses to block registered offenders is pointless.
In reality abductions by strangers are minimal. Most minors are at more risk from the people they know. In the US less than 0.1 percent of all youth abductions are by strangers according to MIT university. Stories covering the US Crimes Against Children report picked up on the statistic showing one in five children are sexually solicited online, but they failed to report that the same study shows more than 76 percent of these were from fellow teens.
Children have the technical know-how without the emotional maturity to deal with some of the content they are presented with. As safety fears put real-life playgrounds out of bounds, children are transferring their role playing to the virtual playground.
Corporate bodies exploiting user-generated content for generating revenue need to take responsibility by signing up to codes of conduct. This will help to expose the facts behind the media fuelled fears and create an environment where sensible and workable measures to protect minors can be implemented.