Written for BA (Hons) Journalism Falmouth Navigator

Social Networking has increasingly become a necessity among online users today, building relationships with friends and family on a daily basis. As online favourite Facebook reaches the 600th million user mark, with Twitter marking its 190th million account, the talk of the tweet is increasingly changing the way we receive information. With the convenience it holds and the mass scale of communication that follows, we have turned into a society obsessed with the online presence.

However for some, obsession is only the beginning of what can soon turn into a game of cat and mouse. Known as internet predators, an estimated 89 per cent of these labelled personalities target online chat-rooms through instant messaging, creating a sense of vulnerability and false anxiety rather than entertainment and social release. Using easily found photographs of other people to hide and maintain their image, along with false information of their name, age and sex, depicting an internet predator cannot always be an easy task among vulnerable teenagers.

This is the scenario in Henry Joost’s 2010 American documentary Catfish, which follows the development of a false online relationship though Facebook via fabricated characters created by single housewife Angela. Pretending to be an eight-year-old child prodigy as well as her mother, father and two sisters, the development of such false online personalities echoes the audience’s fears around today’s virtual world.

Steven Powell, 19, a TV extra faced his own ordeal in 2007: “I met a person online called ‘Shane’ through Habbo Hotel, an online RPG game. He told me he was the same age as me and lived in California. He was a great laugh; we seemed to have a lot in common and were always sharing personal information with one another.

We had been talking for just over a year when I was introduced to his half-sister ‘Jade’, who he claimed lived with him in California. We both hit it off and I began to talk to her more often. We shared photos, numbers and had hefty online conversations. It wasn’t until 6 months down the line that I realised this personality was false and ‘Shane’ had been playing up to the character the entire time,”

As figures show, an estimated 5,000,000 predators surf the web on an around the clock basis, resulting in 5 per cent of young online users being approached online each year. These figures seen on a yearly basis, show the protection of online safety has become impossible to monitor within an area that is constantly updating.

Hannah Bickers of Child Exploitation & Online Protection, an organisation set up to help young victims, believes change is needed among what younger users are told: “I believe education is crucial to ensure young people understand the risks they face online, and ultimately, what they can do to stay safe.”

I felt cheated that I had lost a best friend. As far as best friends go online at least,” Steven concluded.


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