The Potential Dangers of Internet Chatting

Lanqun | January 2005

Internet chatting has increasingly grown in popularity in the last few years and now and then we hear some appalling stories of net chatting disasters. This review examines the hypothesis that there are various potential dangers to Internet chatting that can threaten people?s health, regular lives and family relationships.

Introduction to Chat
Since Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was introduced in 1991, particularly for military personnel keeping in touch with family members during the Gulf War, Internet chatting has developed rapidly. IRC that is normally in the form of chat rooms provides venues on websites for groups of users who have common interests to communicate in real-time (Protecting your privacy on the Internet 2001, p.27). Raymond argued that recently, many people have been reveling in Instant Messaging (e.g. ICQ and MSN), which is a free system installed in the users? computers and allows people to send private messages back and forth online with one or more people at any time they want. However, the dangers of online chat are lurking around everywhere on the Internet. Certain functions of Internet chatting that attracts an infinite diversity of people cause not only physical or psychological problems, but also broken family relationships and friendships. Even worse, people, especially children, may become victims of extreme cases of attacks by cyber criminals such as pedophiles.

Who Uses Chat Rooms or Instant Messaging?
A variety of people around the world with all kinds of personalities, backgrounds and purposes often chat online.

Some people who always chat on the Internet are there just to have some fun. Among the teenagers, 74% of them use Instant Messaging and 55% often visit chat rooms to strengthen friendships or share common interests (Raymond 2001, p.137). Adults normally use Internet chatting as a tool for relaxation and entertainment in the evenings or at weekends.

A recent study shows that here is a group of people who rely on Internet chatting, because they are always in a shy, depressed or lonely state. These shy users can freely express themselves while chatting because of the text-based feature of Internet chat. They don?t have to worry about how they look and behave. For those who are depressed and frustrated, chatting online is a good way for them to release their emotions. People who are lonely can easily find an online chatting companion and reveal how they feel.

However, just as there are criminals in the real world, as Alex Zaharov-Reutt, the editor in chief of Net Alert organization, said in an interview in July of 2003, so there are cyber criminals taking advantage of Internet chatting, intending to hurt people in some way. These people are hackers and pedophiles.

Therefore, mingled backgrounds, characteristics and intentions of users of chat rooms and Instant Messaging as well as certain features of chat rooms can lead to a variety of problems.

Potential Dangers:

Internet chatting features can make people with certain personalities become easily addicted to it, which may result in various psychological problems. The above argument also indicates that incorrect sedentary posture and excessive online chatting indeed does harm to users physical health in several ways.

Effects on Life
For many people who often chat online, cyber life has more or less affected their normal lives. The impacts can be observed from real life relationship breakdowns, irregular study and work. Cyber relationships have the magical power of destroying intimate relationships between family members and friendships that exist in real life in several ways.

Examples of Cyber Influence on Real Life Relationships:

Extreme Cases
The latent dangers of Internet chatting are mostly highlighted in some extreme cases. The most usual extreme dangers of net chat are attacks by pedophiles, sexual assaults, kidnapping and murder.

Pedophiles make use of Internet chat in order to seek out their victims. Vulnerable children, especially girls between 13 and 17 are always their targets. Pedophiles often take advantage of anonymity to appear as a friend, obtain the email address and then intend to meet the child alone (What Happened to One Family 2002). It is shown that 60% of teens receive messages from strangers, among whom pedophiles are a significant proportion (Raymond 2002. p.138). In one example, a 14-year-old girl had a strong relationship with a man who she believed was 23 and decided to meet him in order to strengthen their friendship. He was actually 41 and assaulted this naive girl.

Adults also have been deceived and faced the perils of Internet chat. This can be seen in the first case of its kind in NSW. After 5 months of contact via the Internet with a 24-year-old woman, a man in his late 20s sex attacked her on their date in real life. Property con-artists frequently hunt on the Internet to get an opportunity. A 46-year-old woman, Sun divorced her husband and left her children because of her cyber affair with a 32-year-old young man called Fan. He defrauded her of $70,000, by asking for a loan. Sun agreed to the loan, but during their cohabitation, she found him to be quite different from the one she knew on the net and she decided to leave. However, Fan refused to give her the money back. In front of the judge, he explained that Sun gave the money to him as a gift, otherwise he would not have lived with such an ?old lady?. (Divorce Caused by Net Love 2002)

Kidnapping and murder for money and properties are also common. A university student in China was kidnapped and then killed by her online lover. Though they had known each other for a year, the man showed his true colors when he heard that she was going abroad to study and thought that he could not let her go so easily. He managed to meet her and kidnap her and demanded a large ransom, otherwise he would kill her. However, when the police found her, she had already been killed after having been raped by the evil man and his accomplices. (From Net Love to Death 2002)

Cannibals are also finding their prey, using chat rooms as the most useful tool. A 41-year-old German computer programmer, Armin Meiwes, had sought on the Internet his particular prey. The latter wanted to have his penis cut off and then to dine on it before he was killed by being stabbed. He normally shared his fantasies in chat rooms named ?Gourmet, Cannibal and Eaten Up?. Finally, he found this fantasist, 43, called Brandes and managed to eat him with his consent. Astonishingly, he wanted to encourage other cannibals in several European countries (Hall 2003).

Children or adults are often lured by cyber criminals into perilous circumstances, which can result in extremely horrible tragedies. Dangerous people make use of Internet chatting to hurt vulnerable group of users.

The curses of the potential perils of Internet chat are revealed to be the anonymity and the text-based conversation, which make the Internet unique and different from face-to-face communication in the real world. These two functions are like magic wands, because they can let users avoid being seen in public and help them to disguise themselves as anyone they want to become. According to the survey, 61% of Internet chatting users are anonymous on line and 83% change their personal data online. This indicates the great amount of falsehood and unreality of online chat. Although this does bring amusement at some stage, once these magic wands addict people or once they are used by dangerous characters, tragedies may unfold.

The net chat addicts normally avoid solving problems happening in their real life. Family relationship breakdowns are an example. Alex Zaharov-Reutt mentioned that this is happening because there is a collapse occurring before they start chatting . However, the situation is that Internet chat seems to be the main cause, as it offers them a fanciful haven where they can simply find what they are seeking in their real life. Anonymity enables them to do things that they rarely do in reality, like cyber sex. Therefore, they escape from real problems rather than facing up to and dealing with them. This can only make the present situation worse and lead to the final breakup.

Online relationships that begin as genuine and above board have the potential to deteriorate and a dangerous situation may ensue. As evident when the young man killed his online lover for money. An Internet user can have a change in motives. After having built up a harmonious relationship with one individual, they may switch to a rich person somewhere in the world in order to obtain money by deception. The latter seems to be happening more often in developing countries, as many people using the Internet were born in poor families and Internet gives them many opportunities to get in touch with those who are wealthy.

Moreover, adolescents seem to be very ?honest? online, according to the research. 71% of adolescents aged between 16 and 18 say that they are not anonymous on the Internet. Many adolescent are sincere in their wish to make all kinds of new friends around the globe via the Internet. Cyber criminals may take advantage of their weaknesses and hook them putting them in a dangerous situation.

Excessive use of Internet chatting may lead to large financial cost. Unlike Australia where the Internet cost depends on the times of dialing according to Zaharov-Reutt, for many countries, like China, the money that people spend on the Internet depends on how long they are using it. Internet cafés are extremely popular, as it is not expensive to surf there and everyone can chat about whatever whenever they like. Students who are restricted in their use of the Internet at home, those who cannot afford a computer and people who are afraid of being seen engaging in cyber affairs are the Internet cafés? common customers. Though it is a small amount of money to spend in the Net Café, once a person is addicted to it, he or she can spend hours chatting each day. The expense may be hundreds of dollars a month.

Law enforcements on unregulated Internet chat are hard to execute, because Internet chat is international and people have their right to chat without surveillance by authorities. Nevertheless, various protecting methods are considerable. Zaharov-Reutt suggests that parents and teachers need to educate children about how to protect themselves while chatting, such as not telling their names and home address to strangers. Internet uses need to be regulated at home and it is suggested the computer should be placed in the living room where everyone can see. Furthermore, protecting family relationships between spouses, children and parents who are encouraged to have frequent conversation with each other to keep the harmony. Videos and audio chat features can prevent people from typing too much and lower the risks of having reduced sensations. Additionally, Internet chat users need to do some physical activities after a period of chatting.

Internet chatting is an empowering tool that has expanded in recent years. Though people are finding it entertaining, it does harm in several ways. Certain functions of online chatting enable users around the world with all sorts of motives and backgrounds to get together. Too much trust and dependence on cyber life can cause net addiction that may lead to several psychological disorders or physical problems. Moreover, relationships in real life have been affected by on-line relationships. Extreme cases indicate the most dreadful consequences caused by cyber criminals. As Internet chatting is still spreading its attractions, people need be aware of these dangers and take proper actions to protect themselves and their life.

References & Resources:
- Cyberspace Law: Cases and Materials, by Raymond Ku
-Protecting Your Privacy on the Internet, by Charles Jennings, Lori Fena & Esther Dyson
-Tangled in the Web by Kimberly S. Young
-The Psychology of Cyberspace by John Suler, Ph.D.
-Internet Cafes by Mintel International Group
-Grandma Test for your Net Worth, Australia News Article at -Hongen News

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