Social network that aims to shut out predators and bullies of the internet
Two years ago, Becca Morgan discovered the youngest of her five children had set herself up with a Facebook account.
Her daughter Kate was just eight-years-old and had registered with the social networking site, which has a minimum age for members of 13, using a false date of birth and a little help from her siblings.
While nothing untoward had gone on, like most mothers, Becca, who lives in Grinton, North Yorkshire, was aware of the dangers of allowing youngsters online. As soon as she found out her daughter had signed up, the account was closed down. “Kate’s older brothers and sisters all had accounts and I guess she just wanted to be part of the fun,” says Becca. “At that age there is a lot of peer pressure and children will badger parents for access to sites like this saying all their friends are members. I had been very clear with all my children that they had to wait until they were 13, but they can be pretty ingenious when it comes to getting something they want.
“All they want to do is go online to chat to their friends, but while it seems very innocent, they can be oblivious to the very real dangers. Research by OFCOM shows that a quarter of children aged eight to 12-years-old who use the internet have profiles on sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace which as a parent I find very worrying.
“There’s obviously a yearning from this age group to feel included, but most sites don’t or simply can’t offer any reassurance that they won’t be exposed to inappropriate information or images.”
According to a recent survey by the EU Commission, 27 per cent of children in the UK admitted they had given an incorrect age to gain access to social networking sites. Many come to no harm, but a series of high profile cases in recent years have served to highlight just how a simple messaging system can be exploited.
Towards the end of last year, postman Michael Williams from Cornwall was jailed for eight-and-a-half years after he confessed using both Facebook and Bebo to groom up to 1,000 children for sex. After creating at least eight fake profiles, the court heard how Williams had dyed his hair different colours to protect his identity as he targeted youngster he met on his post round and through his role as a football club secretary. When he was apprehended by police, he later admitted 27 charges and asked for another 460 to be taken into consideration.
Such cases are the extreme, but since it was launched in 2004, the perils of Facebook have been amply illustrated. A few years ago the parents of a Harrogate teenager returned from a weekend away to find their £1m home had been trashed. Details of the party had been posted on MySpace and by the time 200 or so gatecrashers were persuaded to leave, they had already caused more than £20,000 of damage.
Such stories, along with tales of sustained and vicious cyber-bullying are on the increase, causing parents to wonder whether they would be better to pull the plug on technology altogether. When Becca closed down her daughter’s Facebook site it wasn’t a popular move in the Morgan household. However, having said no to one social networking site, Becca began to wonder whether there might be an alternative which would offer the same kind of online messaging and friendship, but without putting her youngest in a potentially vulnerable situation.
Calling on the computer expertise of her brother, Ben Hall, the siblings began to put together a blueprint for a new kind of site which would tick all the boxes for both parents and children.
“Ben’s a bit of an IT expert, so one day we decided to put our heads together and see what we could come up with,” she says. “The reality is that social networking exists and while saying ‘no’ to children may be a short-term fix it isn’t really a long-term solution. What we both wanted was a site where young children could learn about the safe way to use the internet without being exposed to the dangers.”
And so Jabble was born. The site is effectively Facebook with stabilisers. Youngsters who sign up can make friends and send messages, but it’s their parents who authorise the account and once it is up and running they can continue to access it.
Of course it is still open to abuse – there is nothing to stop someone intent on grooming youngsters setting up a bogus account – however, the security measures go further than just the initial registration. A filtering system automatically removes any telephone numbers and addresses a child might be tempted to give out, and the software is sensitive to particular behaviour. Conversations which include phrases such as “don’t tell your mum and dad” are immediately flagged up and accounts can be suspended automatically until they can be investigated by Jabble’s human moderators.
“At the moment we have five people monitoring traffic on the site, but as the number of members increase so will they,” says Becca who works as a teacher and runs an agency for other supply teachers. “The children themselves can immediately alert us if they receive any message which they feel threatened or worried by. As soon as we receive that alert, the relevant account is suspended until one of our moderators can look through the actual messages. If one member receives a number of these red flags then we can ban them permanently from the site.
“Of course we all know that some youngsters are too embarrassed to admit they are being bullied or worried about the consequences if they do involve an adult. One of the keys to this site is that parents can access a full transcript of all messages sent and received. It basically gives them a safety net that is not offered by anyone else.” After developing Jabble with her brother over some months, Becca piloted the site with the help of one of her agency’s supply teachers. The final tweaks were made and the site went live nationally this month. So far the reaction from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly with regards the fact Jabble comes with time restrictions.
“Parents can set it up so their child say only has access for one hour a day or can’t use it at all say after 8pm,” says Becca. “Children have always tried to resist sleep and while once it was reading a book under the duvet, many now find a way to sneak their mobile phone to bed. We were very clear from the start that we didn’t want to encourage messaging through the night and again the way we have set up the site puts parents back in control.”
Becca’s brother has been responsible for the design of the site and the educational games which are included along with the messaging, and the graphics look not unlike those which made the Wii console such a hit.
However, for all the child-friendly pages and the site’s added security measures, it will be meaningless if it fails to capture the imagination of children in the same way Facebook and Bebo has. “Of course I would say that children love it,” says Becca. “But it really seems to work. My daughter Kate is 10-years-old now, but has never once asked to go back on Facebook.”
For Becca, that’s ultimate proof of Jabble’s success.
Access to Jabble is free via www.jabble.co.uk and a Jabble app will be able to download by the end of July.