Turkish Experts warn parents of threat Internet poses to children

Experts warn parents of threat Internet poses to children

Zaman, 08 March 2009, ZEKİ GÜLEN.

As Turkey’s urban population grows and the threats faced by children in large cities increase in number, parents have a growing tendency to keep their children near them at all times.

A significant number of children these days spend much of their free time on the Internet. However, their parents often have no idea whether they are spending endless hours playing games online or if they are being victimized by pedophiles in chat rooms. Experts warn that surfing the Web can sometimes be as dangerous for children as wandering through dark city streets.

According to a study conducted by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) in August 2008, 24.47 percent of households in Turkey are online. Internet connections are becoming ubiquitous, and a large number of children are using the Internet on a daily basis to browse Web pages, chat, connect to peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and participate in online forums. Parents and teachers encourage children to use computers to prepare them for the future. Some teachers even assign homework that requires students to search for information on the Internet.

According to experts, the most widespread threat against children on the Internet is ‘accessing inappropriate content.’ A child completing a homework assignment first visits a search engine and seemingly harmless searches can yield limitless results that may include inappropriate content. A senior police officer at the Information Crimes Branch of the İstanbul Police Department says inappropriate content accessible on the Web includes pornographic material; information facilitating the use of drugs, alcohol, etc.; terrorist propaganda; violent content; instructions for building bombs or growing drug plants; and proselytizing Web sites aimed at influencing children’s beliefs.

As a striking example, there were over 4.2 million pornographic Web sites (12 percent of all active Web sites) in 2006, according to a survey cited by attorney Mehmet Ali Köksal, a member of the Turkish Informatics Association (TBD). ‘The average age of first exposure to Internet pornography is 11. Among all age groups, 8-16 year olds have the highest percentage of having viewed porn online, at 90 percent,’ added Köksal. According the survey, conducted by the Web site FamilySafeMedia.com, children mostly access inappropriate content while doing homework. Another interesting statistic posted on site is that 26 names of children’s characters, including ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Action Man,’ are linked to thousand of porn sites. According to the officer from the İstanbul Police Department, child pornography is not produced in Turkey. Even so, statistics show that such material is consumed in Turkey.

Pedagogue and intercultural communication expert Elif Gündüz says it is harmful for children to see inappropriate content such as pornographic images and videos. ‘They lose self-confidence and fear others. They experience anxiety and verbal and behavioral expression disorders,’ she continued.

These are not the only threats facing children on the Internet, experts say. They warn parents that online forums, chat rooms, Web sites and P2P networks (such as gnutella) are being used by pedophiles to meet gullible children. There is also a risk that a child could conduct transactions that have negative financial consequences, such as giving out his/her parents’ credit card numbers.

Gündüz also calls attention to another point: the Internet itself as a medium may be a threat for a child even if there is no other danger. ‘We are talking about a kid who doesn’t know real face-to-face communication. Children may lose the ability to communicate through body language. This causes children to feel isolated and to be unable to fulfill their fundamental needs,’ she explains. Therefore, children experience serious difficulty communicating with others in real life.

She says parents should teach their children about proper usage of the Internet. ‘Parents should pay attention to their children and maintain control at all times without causing them discomfort,’ adds Gündüz.

Many technology experts agree that family filtering programs are useful tools as a first step toward safe internet browsing. But, the İstanbul police officer says children quickly learn how to bypass these filters, so installing filtering software is not a complete solution.

Gündüz also doesn’t think these programs are a real solution to the problem. ‘Parents should accompany their children, and their attitudes should serve as a role model to them not only on the Internet, but also in other areas of life,’ says Gündüz. ‘What if parents also leave their children alone in other areas of life?’ she asks. A serious calamity would await them, she concludes.

Attorney Köksal says Law No. 5651 contains regulations that aim to protect children against threats on the Internet. He says children are also protected by other laws in the Turkish Civil Code and Turkish Penal Code (TCK) since actions on the Internet are not legally differentiated from those in real life.

However, he thinks people should not expect the government to take care of everything and depicts the aspects involved in protecting children as four: the government preparing the legal infrastructure and educating individuals; nongovernmental organizations creating public awareness and sensitivity; parents acting responsibly, teaching, supervising and intervening if necessary; and children also acting responsibly and talking openly about their experiences. Köksal voices the dilemma faced by Turks: ‘Child abuse is rarely seen in our society because of our social values. However, if they experience such a thing, our children would not share this with their parents.’

The law gives the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), which is under the Information Technology and Communication Council (BTK), authority to deal with Internet threats. This body gathers and evaluates complaints and takes action against eight legally defined crimes, which include child abuse, pornography, gambling and contents facilitating drug use.

Köksal reiterates that government should not be expected to ban Web sites because of the likelihood of abuse of power and lack of control. He suggests that families should control their children’s Internet usage rather the government banning Web sites. Gündüz agrees with him, stating, ‘Families should block their children’s Internet access if required.’

The police officer mentions the responsibilities of Internet service providers and hosting companies. ‘If laws require these companies to filter their content, a huge part of these threats could be eliminated,’ he says. However, filtered subscriptions are a bit more expensive than unfiltered ones. Even so, people who want safer Web browsing for their children have alternatives.

Living in the Internet age may be more difficult than old times, and there are always threats facing innocent defenseless children, even in the virtual sphere. As communication channels evolve, parents should always communicate openly with their children. This is the only way to protect children from threats, experts say.