commentary Facebook on Tuesday launched a so-called Safety Center as a worldwide resource for parents, teens, law enforcement, educators, and the general public, but it's taking safety a step further in the U.K.
In addition to the global safety page, Facebook has developed more resources specifically for members in the United Kingdom, where it has been under pressure from Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) to include a clearly visible "panic button" on every page. Facebook has agreed to redesign its report abuse system for U.K. members but hasn't agreed to a "panic button" that links directly to CEOP. In a statement on its Web site, CEOP says, "We believe that without the deterrence provided by direct visible access to the CEOP button on each and every page, children will not be appropriately empowered, parents cannot be reassured, and the offender will not be deterred."
The "panic button" might seem like a good idea at first, but I question whether it's necessary or helpful. Like so much of the early Internet safety messaging, it implies that kids are in immediate danger of life and limb, which simply is almost never the case. The number of young people who have been harmed by a stranger they met online is extremely low and, even in those few tragic cases, the victim has always willingly met up with the abuser. What's needed is education that helps kids understand how to protect themselves and avoid engaging in dangerous activities such as talking about sex online with strangers and, especially, getting together with strangers they first met online except in a public place with friends (or ideally parents) present. As I've written so much about in previous posts, the overwhelming number of kids who run into problems online do so because of their own behavior or the behavior of peers. Adult-to-child exploitation on social networks is far less common than cyberbullying and harassment by other young people.
The other problem with a "panic button" is that it could lead to a false sense of security. If someone truly is aware of an online emergency, they are better off calling 911 or its equivalent in whatever country they are in.
I am in favor of a "report abuse" button, which Facebook does have at the bottom left corner of each profile, and I think it would be a good idea to make that button more prominent. But it's important to remember that--in most cases--online problems are not issues for law enforcement. Most cases of Internet "abuse" have more to do with problems in relationships than with crimes, and many can be handled by enforcement of the service's terms of service. Facebook, like MySpace and other responsible social sites, does have a security department that is equipped to evaluate any reports of abuse and follow up as necessary. In some cases, the solution is as simple as sending a warning, while others may warrant suspension or canceling of the abuser's account. If it appears that a crime has been committed, Facebook will refer the case to law enforcement.