Regulating games that can end in tears

Regulating games that can end in tears

Children’s charity the NSPCC has hit out at the launch of FreakySMS – a service that allows users to send anonymous text messages – saying it is open to abuse (MW last week).

FreakySMS, which launched earlier this year, holds 100 mobile phone numbers that replace the text message sender’s number, meaning the recipient sees an unknown code. Founder Hans Sweep says his core market is aged between 16 and 35, and as a result the service has been designed for use without a contract or subscription.

The company says it has anticipated possible misuse of the service to taunt or threaten people. Regardless of whether senders identify themselves, the recipient will be informed they have been tricked and directed to the FreakySMS website. Sweep says that all users can be identified and any deemed to have sent a threatening message will be blacklisted.

The Guardian this week published research from the Institute of Public Policy Research claiming Britons are more likely than other Europeans to blame youngsters for antisocial behaviour. Now the NSPCC and Childline are concerned FreakySMS could add to the proliferation of “cyber bullying”, which observers feel is a growing problem among young people.

Targets of bullying
Chris Cloke, head of the NSPCC’s Child Protection Awareness Group, says: “Last year, ChildLine [now an NSPCC service] counselled over 37,000 children about being bullied, including being targeted by text and e-mail. We are concerned that anonymous text services could be another way for bullies to intimidate their victims.”

This month also sees controversial video game Bully hitting UK shelves. Such is the disquiet surrounding the title that Rockstar Games has changed its name to Canis Canem Edit (Dog Eat Dog) across Europe.

One vehement critic of the video games industry in the US is Jack Thompson, but he failed to halt Bully’s launch last week. However, he is involved in two lawsuits that hold Rockstar and parent company Take Two Interactive responsible for real acts of violence.

Bully is set in a boarding school and characters defend themselves against classmates. Game-play includes fights, featuring weapons such as baseball bats – but no guns or death – while protagonists’ actions have consequences: by playing truant, they face adults voicing their disapproval. Rockstar defends its game, calling it “just entertainment”, but detractors say the game can only encourage youngsters to bully.

Self-regulation
The companies behind products such as FreakySMS and Bully say that it is up to consumers to act responsibly, but Cloke suggests: “As young people increasingly use mobile phones and new media in their daily lives, it is essential that internet service providers take action to keep children safe. It is vital to educate children in how to stay safe online, and that they know where to turn if they need help.”

Earlier this year, the NSPCC helped launch the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre for the UK, which Cloke cites as “a major step forward in tackling online child abuse and exploitation”.

Cloke concludes: “Many people – such as teachers, the Department for Education and Skills, and the NSPCC – recognise that cyber-bullying is a serious problem. However, technology is always evolving. We all need to stay one step ahead of the latest developments and make sure anti-bullying policies take account of these changes.”

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