The danger lurking at home
Following the death of Ashleigh Hall, Neil Tweedie and Ed Gumming look at the dark side of Facebook
They called each other "babe" -- Ashleigh Hall and the handsome 19-year-old she had met on Facebook called Peter Cartwright. There was an easy familiarity during their online conversations, as if they had known each other for months. Ashleigh, perhaps more naive than the average 17-year-old, a girl prey to low self-esteem, was smitten.
Of course, Cartwright was nothing more than a figment, a disguise assumed by a rapacious sexual predator called Peter Chapman. It took 33-year-old Chapman a month to reel in his victim using a laptop, and he told her that he was sending his father to pick her up -- how else could he explain the discrepancy between his picture on Facebook and his older, shaven-headed self? It worked perfectly. On October 25 last year, Ashleigh, a trainee nursery nurse, accepted a lift in Chapman's car. He drove her from her home in Darlington in the north of England to a secluded area, and then raped and suffocated her. Police found Ashleigh's body dumped in a field after Chapman turned himself in.
That crime could not have happened a decade ago. As every parent is only too aware, no child can be protected totally from the dangers of the outside world; but in the pre-internet age one could breathe easily when a son or daughter was upstairs in the bedroom. Now the world flows freely into the home, bringing with it people like Peter Chapman. Social networking sites are sources of enjoyment to the majority of their users, but their implicit attraction -- instant connectivity to potential new friends -- is accompanied by an inherent danger, the predatory criminal masquerading as someone else.
Distress need not be caused by strangers, however. Facebook and its less successful rivals provide forums for a new kind of abuse: online bullying. The home no longer serves as a refuge from school bullies, who can pursue their victims using intimate information and photographs to embarrass and ridicule vulnerable youngsters. The Facebook era presents parents with challenges alien to previous generations. What should they do? Michael Hulme is an academic specialising in youth networks on the web. He believes the stories relating to online abuses stem from our place in time.
"There is a particular age group of children which is caught between two factors," he says. "Their parents have not grown up with the internet and have not learnt its intricacies. At the same time, children themselves have not been taught about the dangers of socialising on the net.
"You need to teach primary-school children about the pitfalls -- to encourage scepticism -- and you must watch them closely. Parents need to put the time and effort in. It should be like crossing the road."
Research carried out by Prof Hulme and others suggests that parents tend to stop monitoring what their children are doing online from the age of eight. Yet the most vulnerable years are around the ages of 12 and 13, when children struggle to establish their own identity.
"If I was a parent of a child that age, I would want to be able to have a general discussion about what they are doing on the net," he says. "Obviously, the big danger is the transition from virtual to physical meetings. Parents should be encouraged to create a climate in which their child would not attempt a physical meeting without telling them."
Predators like Chapman, he says, are playing a "percentage game" in which thousands of online "friendships" are created in the hope of discovering a handful of vulnerable victims. Chapman, a serial sex offender, contacted as many as 6,000 individuals online in a vast trawling expedition. The majority of social networking happens between youngsters who know each other, however, and that is where the potential for bullying can occur.
Tanya has a 15-year-old daughter who has been a victim of online bullying.
She says: "If some classmates are ganging up on your child at school, it's the school's problem; if it happens in a public place, there are other adults who can intervene. When it happens on the web, there is no one there to police it; and there is the additional torture that the nasty comments do not disappear into the ether but remain online as a form of public humiliation, inviting others to join in the fun."
Richard is 18 and a regular user of Facebook.
"I think it's pretty safe -- there's loads of privacy settings you can choose. The only bad thing is I think it automatically reveals your profile and all your pictures, and you have to select if you want your profile to be hidden. Some of my friends have been caught out.
"I keep being added by random people, who say things like, 'I'm going to show you some hot, hot photos' -- I don't know whether they're just sex lines or what -- they just seem to want to add me. A random guy added one of my girl friends and started talking to her, but after a while she stopped because she didn't know who he was. You just never know. There's a photo, but you don't know if it's a photo of them.
'Most people are sensible, but there are a few people who are desperate to have friends -- who just accept someone even if they don't know them. As a school project, teachers made up a fake person who tried to befriend everyone in the year. Most people accepted, even though they didn't know who he was."
Policing children's online adventures is easier said than done. Mary trusts her 13-year-old son but is aware of the limits of her control.
"My son was allowed to join Facebook with strict conditions, one of which is that his father is a friend so he can see what is going on, but the truth is, it is impossible to police. He could join under an assumed name and not ask us to be his friends and we wouldn't really know. All my thoughts about letting him use just one computer haven't worked, either. His laptop, which he requires for school, picks up the neighbour's wireless.
"When he is working on the house computer, he minimises as soon as he sees me so that I can't see what he is up to. He is incredibly trustworthy and sensible, much more so than many of his mates, but it is just terrifying that kids are so trusting of others."
There is no such thing as absolute security in the cyber world. Parents will simply have to use a very old technique to protect their young: teaching them the virtue of common sense.