Digital Content

Internet chat rooms operated by M-Web, the largest consumer internet access provider in South Africa, will not be closing down despite the risk that they are haunted by paedophiles and porn merchants.

The unsavoury characters chat rooms attract are prompting Microsoft to close its service in 28 countries, including SA, on October 14. But M-Web’s chat sites operate under different rules from Microsoft’s, says its strategy director Bruce Cohen. M-Web’s chat and instant messaging services have 60,000 registered users, whose activities are monitored by teams of moderators around the clock.

"Whilst it is impossible to guarantee safety in online chat rooms, our moderators are skilled at identifying problems and proactively advise younger members about online safety," said Cohen.

That watchful eye ensured the chat remained entertaining and, more importantly, safe, he said. "Internet chat rooms are not going to go away; and they can be perfectly safe if young people abide by a few simple rules.

"Just as we teach our kids not to accept sweets or lifts from strangers, so parents need to lay down the ground rules for online behaviour," said Cohen. Closing down the sites would not make the problem vanish, he said.

Online chat rooms were growing in leaps and bounds and young people would simply find alternative sites. One problem was that the issue of chat room safety had fallen through the cracks of the education system, Cohen said. Most schools did not let pupils access those sites from their computer lab, so safety issues did not arise and were not dealt with.

Moreover, teachers and parents were largely ignorant about internet chat, so teenagers were not given any guidelines. "Parents and schools need to take chat room safety seriously and engage teenagers on the subject," said Cohen. To help parents, M-Web has produced a chat safety pledge to let families discuss the risks and agree on appropriate behaviour.

"We encourage our younger members and parents to print out the pledge and sign it after discussing the subject," said Cohen. "Its rules include promising never to disclose personal information such as an address, telephone number or a photograph without parental permission," said Cohen. It also required them never to arrange to meet anyone whom they had met online unless they took an adult with them, he said.

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