While most parents are aware of the potential dangers of allowing children to use chat rooms and social networking sites without supervision, many may be unaware of the danger posed by games consoles that connect to the web.
At present, the most popular web-enabled home game consoles on the market are the Nintendo Wii, the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3. These consoles all offer the ability to send files such as photographs to other users via email.
In addition, there are a range of games available for each console that allow users to interact with other gamers over the internet, allowing users to converse in written text, audio and even video. All this functionality, while very popular among young people, also makes games consoles a potential means to offend for internet predators.
Online child grooming is the practice of meeting and befriending a child online with a view to winning their trust in preparation for attempting to engage them in sexual activity. In 2003, for example, prosecutors in Houston, Texas tracked down and arrested a 24 year old man who had made contact with a 13 year old girl via her Sony PlayStation 3 and persuaded her to send him naked pictures of herself using the console.
Since internet usage exploded in the mid-nineties, laws have developed to criminalise online child grooming. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 made it an offence to arrange a meeting with a person under the age of 16 with the intent of committing a sexual act, so the meeting does not have to have taken place for the perpetrator to be prosecuted, as long as evidence can be presented to prove that the grooming took place.
In most cases, computer forensic experts are engaged by police forces and prosecutors to help identify perpetrators and analyse the consoles for evidence. At the time of writing, it is possible for a computer forensics analyst to trace a perpetrator to a physical location via their registered profile or IP (internet address) and to extract evidence of criminal activity from a console, even after a suspect believes it has been wiped of data.
Parents can take an active role in protecting their children by utilising the parental control options present on all of the above consoles. These allow parents to block particular websites or functions, or indeed prevent web access altogether. However, a March 2009 report from computer security firm Symantec suggests that many parents are not taking adequate action to protect their children online.
The report revealed that UK children spend an average of 43.5 hours online per month, but 46% of parents stated that they had not set parental controls, 25% stated that they had not spoken with their children about practicing safe habits online and 28% said they did not supervise their child’s internet usage.
With a recent report suggesting that as many as two thirds of UK children own a games console, it seems that millions of young people could be vulnerable to online abuse. As a concerted and coordinated effort by console manufacturers, parents, police and prosecutors seems the most effective way to ensure that the activities of internet predators are monitored so that abuse can be prevented and perpetrators can be successfully prosecuted.