Killing stokes fears over impact of Net

Reports that online feud led 11-year-old to kill prompts calls for caution

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The fatal stabbing of a sixth-grade girl by a female classmate at an elementary school in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, earlier this week was shocking enough in itself.

However, reports that the 11-year-old girl who killed Satomi Mitarai did so after being riled by an online exchange with the victim have prompted calls for the promotion of Internet awareness — and not just among children.

Hirotsugu Shimoda, a professor of media studies at Gunma University, said, “I think (many) parents have not been aware of how dangerous cyberspace can be for children, although they themselves must have had unpleasant experiences.”

“That’s why they have few qualms in allowing their children to use computers and mobile phones,” said Shimoda, who operates Netizen Village, a Web site that aims to prevent children from coming across harmful information online.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry revised its academic guidelines in 2002 to encourage elementary schools to provide pupils with opportunities to become accustomed to computers and information networks.

Since then, many public elementary schools have reinforced efforts to teach students in higher grades how to use the Internet to study, create Web sites and send e-mail.

According to a Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry survey, 61.9 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 said they had used the Internet as of the end of 2003.

The figure was up 9.3 percentage points from a year earlier.

“We have instructed (schools) to also teach children such issues as protection of privacy and copyright as well as the effects computer use can have on their physical and psychological health,” one education ministry official said, adding that teaching materials dealing with cyberspace etiquette have been distributed among teachers.

But some argue that schools and parents have failed to teach children the rules and risks of communicating via the Internet.

Mafumi Usui, a psychology professor at Niigata Seiryo University, said online communication is more difficult for children than face-to-face conversation because they are denied access to the other party’s voice tone or facial expressions.

People “write things on the Net that they would never say face to face . . . online arguments among children, who cannot control their emotions (as well as adults), often become more heated more quickly,” he said.

“Besides, if they see nasty things written about themselves, they feel more humiliated (than in a direct conversation) because they know the messages can be read by other people.”

Web sites for children usually post rules for writing messages on their bulletin boards or chat sites.

For example, Kidsnet, a major Web site operated by publisher Gakken Co. that targets elementary school children, bans the use of abusive language and the disclosure of personal information. Messages of this kind are deleted if they are posted.

The site has some 30,000 registered members who can use its free instant-messaging service.

“There are lively discussions among children (on the site), but there are only one or two cases a year in which we have to intervene or erase abusive messages,” said a Gakken spokesman, who added that the firm monitors the site for messages that could be offensive to children.

But when some elementary school children set up their own home pages and exchange instant messages — as was the case in the Sasebo incident — adults might need to pay much closer attention to their online activities.

This can be a difficult task.

Children may often grasp information technology more quickly than adults, and it is difficult for parents to check how they use their cell phones.

“Some adults do not have much knowledge about the Internet, and they are surprised when they see what their children are doing,” said Takayo Okubo, an official at the government-affiliated Internet Association Japan who gives advice to those who have encountered problems using the Net.

The association has distributed leaflets on cyberspace rules and manners to junior and senior high school students, though similar pamphlets have yet to be made for elementary school pupils, she said.

To make the online environment safer for children, Shimoda of Gunma University said that parents, schoolteachers, the media and IT businesses should all work together to promote Internet awareness.

“Adults should be responsible (for protecting children from online problems) as they have provided them with such high-tech communication tools.”