23 February 2008

Make IT secure - panel on social network sites

In the Conrad hotel on Friday morning. Audrey Conlon, chairwoman of the Internet Advisory Board, John Carr, an international expert on social networking and advisor to the UK government , Bebo chief safety officer Dr Rachel O’Connell, Cormac Callanan, Hotline.ie director, and a 5th year student who had presented a project on Bebo at the Young Scientist exhibition were all gathered to make up a panel discussing safety issues on social network sites. Theirs was a refreshing take on social network sites and young people, far from the now all too prevalent media hype on the dangers lurking beneath their seemingly murky waters…

Rachel O’Connell started by pointing out that from an education point of view, the skills obtained by interacting on social network sites such as Bebo actually match the skills required for third level education and later for the workplace. Their studies show that the average Bebo user has 17 friends and spends 40 minutes per day on the site.

John Carr added that the upside of social network sites far outweights the downside, and that the arrival of new technology has always been met by anxiety, be it the printed book or the telephone. He stated again that young people can be incredibly creative on their SN pages, but that parents are perplexed by a medium that they do not know or understand. The young student reflected on the constantly negative output from the media, which concentrates on “bad things” that she or her friends had never encountered. The panel’s opinion was summarized by Cormac Callanan, who said that there was no question of “getting rid of social networks” as some emails to the Internet Advisory Board had requested. The panel again and again insisted on the need for educating the young people to security matters, but also for educating the parents. Unfortunately, the seminar was very poorly attended by parents, maybe because of the early hour, when parents would often be required to see younger children off to school, or maybe a lack of publicity. Representatives of parents’associations were however present, and were told that parents had to see their input as an additional item in the repertoire of parenting, while drawing on the crucial parental role: listen and help.

The media favourite, the paedophile, also warranted a quick mention: according to John Carr, the police in England have reported that IM is much more dangerous than social networks in that regard, due mainly to its one-to-one characteristics. Communication on social networks is permanent and public, and thus much less likely to attract that type of behaviour.

Cormac Callanan then raised the issue of data retaining, and incidents were recounted of employers checking the social network pages of potential employees, as well as a widely reported incident in the UK where the admission office for Cambridge University confessed to using Facebook profiles to decide between applications. The panel felt that this should be forbidden by law.

Age verification seemed to many to be the “silver bullet” that would satisfy parents and make them feel more secure. Cormac Callanan however pointed out that if it could be done, it could be hacked.

Questions were raised on unsuitable content in advertising, and on up and coming sites for much younger children with a definite commercial slant, such as Club Penguin (linked to Disney) or Cartoon Doll Emporium.

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