Newsgroups - what parents should knowBy Jonathan Stromberg
Newsgroups, sometimes called online bulletin boards, are Web sites that serve as forums for groups of people with shared interests. They act as digital public message boards. One can envision an electronic version of the corkboard in the entrance to a local grocery store.
Participants in a newsgroup can read and display messages and post and download files and photos. Unlike chat rooms, newsgroups are not real-time or live discussions. They also differ from emails, because when one sends an e-mail message, the only people who can read it are the recipients (for the most part), and when a posting is made on a newsgroup, any person on the Internet can read it and respond to it. Material posted on the sites remains there for the newsgroups members to view at their convenience. Depending on the newsgroup, postings can remain on the site indefinitely.
The term 'newsgroups' is confusing because they are a medium to discuss any and every topic and interest imaginable, including news, health, politics, science and, of-course, sex.
There are tens of thousands of newsgroups. Some of them are applicable to a global audience; others are more applicable to a country, city, or organization. Most of the newsgroups are available to everyone on the Internet. However, some of the newsgroups have a limited audience. For example, there may be a newsgroup for Gravel Quarry 101 at the Bedrock Trades School, but it is not available or of interest to anyone outside of the school.
Typically, a newsgroup is focused on a particular topic such as, for instance, "shellfish". Some newsgroups allow the posting of messages on a wide variety of themes, regarding anything a member chooses to discuss as on-topic, while others keep more strictly to their particular subject, frowning on off-topic postings.
There are currently well over 100,000 Usenet newsgroups, but only 20,000 or so of those are active. Newsgroups vary in popularity, with some newsgroups only getting a few posts a month while others get several hundred (and in a few cases several thousand) messages a day.
For a large a variety of reasons there is unfortunately a dark side to newsgroups. Their topics can include stories about molesting children, full color images of children being molested, video recordings of the crime of sexual abuse in action and large collections of child pornography. Subscribing to these newsgroups allows millions of people to read some very disturbing articles. Whilst collectors may use them to locate collectables, pedophiles may use them to find other pedophiles, to share child pornography or even the children themselves. Families can use them to find lost loved ones. Drug dealers use them to find new clients. Second only to chat rooms, it is the rawest form of human contact on the Internet.
For parents, especially parents of young children, newsgroups therefore constitute a big problem. Most are unmoderated (no host oversees the content) and some contain very inappropriate material even when the official topic is an innocuous subject such as maths homework. This is because postings offering pornographic services are often broadcast to many newsgroups on the Net.
Many newsgroups, which can be freely accessed from a personal computer, are dedicated to violence, pornography, hate activity, drug use, and other objectionable topics. Such examples of unmoderated newsgroups that contain inappropriate content include:
Conversational Groups: messages usually found in the 'alt.sex' newsgroups can contain sexually explicit language.
Visual Groups: messages usually found in the 'alt.binaries.pictures' can contain sexually related images.
Extremist Groups: some groups contain information such as racial hatred.
Without appropriate filtering software installed on a computer, children are able to browse through these groups and read messages or downloaded images.
Clearly, the content and images posted on newsgroups can be disturbing and emotionally harmful to children.
Due to that fact that people can post messages to each other on a newsgroups Web site, children in newsgroups can be easily contacted by strangers, including of-course Internet predators.
The topic of a newsgroup gives strangers insight into subjects that interest participating children. Knowing that information can help child predators gain their trust.
A childs' postings such as writings, photos, or other material of a personal nature are available for anyone in the newsgroup to see.
It is difficult to know the true identities of members of a newsgroup. This means parents will not know who is actually viewing their childrens' postings on a newsgroup and what their motivations may be.
There are a few unscrupulous people out there, as well as money-hungry businesses. They use computer programs and scan the posted articles, looking for e-mail addresses. This opens the door for their unsolicited e-mail, not unlike junk mail or phone solicitations.
I offer the following tips for parents:
1) Children's participation in newsgroups should be restricted. If a child is a newsgroup member, it must be ensured that the subject matter is appropriate, and the newsgroups postings must be monitored regularly.
2) Children must be aware that they should never post identifying photos or personal information about themselves or their family on a newsgroups Web site.
3) It is wise to block access to all newsgroups for young children. Fortunately, it is easy to do so. iProtectYou enables the parent to block any individual program they wish, or to block all programs except for specifically chosen acceptable ones. iProtectYou contains a built in list of sites and programs that are potentially unsuitable for children, and in this list is included newsgroup sites. This means that such sites can be blocked as soon as the software is installed onto a home computer, giving full protection to the child whilst enabling him or her to benefit from the positive aspects of the internet.
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