Always there

The internet has enabled new communities to develop. Parents of disabled children and young people needing friendly advice are among the groups who benefited, writes Amy Taylor

A problem shared is a problem halved so the saying goes, but what if you don’t have anyone with similar experiences to talk to or you feel unable to discuss your situation for fear of being judged?

Charities are turning to the internet to prevent people from becoming isolated.

Contact a Family, a charity for families with disabled children, is using the web to help parents of disabled children to get in touch with each other. The charity has a long history of helping parents to make contact but for families with children with rare conditions it found this could take months. In July 2004 it decided to use the web to improve the situation by setting up

As well as its ability to reach families across the world the site enables parents to see immediately if families affected by the same conditions are registered. Parents register their details for free and search the site’s database, using criteria such as type of condition or geographical area, to find others in similar situations and make contact by e-mail.

Ryan Cartwright, Contact a Family’s IT manager, explains that what makes the site stand out is that parents’ e-mail addresses, both those sending and receiving messages, will not be displayed to each other.

He says that this is done by allowing them to talk through the website’s server for their first six or seven exchanges without having to log onto the site each time. After this the site will send both parties an e-mail saying if you wish to continue chatting then you will now have to do so directly.

Cartwright says that allowing parents to stay anonymous while they gain each others trust makes them more inclined to use the service.

“I think that it encourages people to take part when otherwise they might not because you hear so many horror stories about people online. I’m a father myself and I’m not sure I would want to paste my e-mail address to someone and say ‘oh yes I have got two children,’” he says.

Another charity using the internet to help people gain support is the NSPCC. For five years it has been running, a website that provides advice to 12 to 16-year-olds. As well as containing information, the site also offers young people several ways of getting in touch including the ability to have a one-to-one online conversation with an adviser in real time.

One to one
NSPCC children’s services manager John Dunmore is responsible for the popular site (see Logged on). He says the one-to-one facility is the most popular service on offer.

If young people tell advisers they are at risk of harm and give out identifying information Dunmore says the advisers have a responsibility to pass this on to the police or social services.

The site explains to young people how to stay anonymous, allowing them to choose whether they want the authorities to be notified.

“Normally it is social workers who have control but There 4 Me gives that to the young person. What we try to do is to encourage young people to think about taking action for  themselves.”

Logged on
Nearly 3,000 people are registered and 140 have joined in the last month. About 300 people have paid to start conversations – there is a token one-off fee of £5 per annum to deter nuisance users. Some 700 people have entered conversations.
The site has more  than 44,000 registered users and 300-400 new ones are signing up each week.

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