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Don't be afraid of the dark net

Parents can be alarmed by the idea of the dark net, with its drugs marketplaces, pro-anorexia websites, sex and extremism. Here, Jamie Bartlett, who spent a year investigating it, suggests that parents ought to find out what happens on the dark side - and that we'll be much better able to help our children if we do.


I recently gave a talk about my book The Dark Net, an examination of some of the most shocking behaviours online. After I’d described trolling, buying and selling drugs and pro-anorexia sites, many adults told me they’d found the content eye-opening and shocking. One teenager came up to me with a quite different response: ‘That was pretty tame,’ she said, ‘I wish you'd gone into more detail, so they could have heard what it’s really like’. 

That sums up the modern, digital version of a very old dynamic: younger people exploring the places and spaces their parents don’t know about (or think they don’t). In this case, parents are often too afraid to find out where their children are going online. That should probably change. The internet is far too important to be left to the kids. 

It won’t come as much of a surprise that people sometimes do bad things online – as often as they do very good things. Nor will it shock that there are as many sub-cultures, communities, sites and forums online as there are offline. Young people will inevitably seek these out, and so they should. But sometimes, either by accident or design, they will end up in some quite dark and even dangerous places. These were the places I sought out in The Dark Net, to try to understand a little better the worrying extremities people – especially young people – can reach. I spent a year investigating (online and off) neo-Nazi groups, trolling culture, home made web-camming, online drugs marketplaces, pro-anorexia and self-harming sites and more besides. All the things, in short, that headline writers love and parents hate. Yes, they exist in vast numbers, are easy to stumble into and can be very disturbing and worrying. But until you’ve actually been there yourself, you don’t realise what it’s really like. And it’s rarely how you might imagine.  

Take the self-harm and pro-anorexia communities that are flourishing online. Far from being cruel and nasty sites that prey on vulnerable teens, they are a vibrant, welcoming and supportive community of like-minded people.  This is why young people go there and stay there. They join for the dieting tips and stay for the sense of belonging, taking in extremely dangerous advice while there. 

Then there are the infamous ‘dark net markets’ where drugs can be bought and sold at the click of a mouse. These are functioning markets - like eBay or Amazon - offering high quality narcotics at a competitive price, all provided with excellent customer service.  

‘Cam-models’ earn their money by performing sexually explicit acts in front of their webcams, for which they are paid in tips by hundreds of appreciative viewers. Straight to customer, low running costs and a personalised service: this business model is one of the few profitable sectors in an otherwise struggling porn industry. 

Nothing in these sub-cultures is quite as it seems. But that doesn’t mean it’s not risky or dangerous – especially for the young and naive, who often don’t realise a few stupid clicks can cause incredible long-term damage. So what to do? 

I think we all learn best when we make mistakes and mollycoddling children is usually both ineffective and counter-productive. The key skill for young people is careful, discerning judgement about how to navigate the net and that takes time to learn, with chances to make mistakes along the way. But parents can help a lot if they know more about these shadowy parts of the net. I’m not suggesting you go out and immerse yourself in all the bad things that happen online. But perhaps try to familiarise yourself a little with the places your children might be frequenting: sites like 4Chan, Reddit, encrypted messaging systems, pro-anorexia sites, trolling forums. Take a look at some of the propaganda that’s produced by Islamist extremists. Be careful, obviously - but, assuming you’re a well adjusted adult, you’ll get used to it very quickly and probably find it’s not quite as bad as you’d imagined, and certainly very different. 

Once the initial shock wears off, your mind will likely switch to wondering how to best help your children if they’ve wound up there too. And, armed with a bit of experience of your own, you’ll be much better equipped to offer good advice.  

By Jamie Barlett


Discovering the dark net – a bit of background

  • The dark net (or dark web) refers to sites hidden by encryption, through an ‘onion network’. It can also refer to the darker side of the ‘normal’ web, such as the bulletin board 4Chan or Pro Ana sites.
  • Some of the content on the dark net is, as you might expect, dark. A lot isn’t. 
    4Chan, for example, has been linked to a number of controversies, including when one user posted nude pictures of female celebrities in 2014 . Yet its users also tracked down a man who posted videos of himself online abusing a cat which led to his arrest (and the rescue of the cat). It has an Origami & Papercraft board where people upload images of their folded paper creations.
  • The most well known encrypted browser is called Tor, which stands for The Onion Router. Others include The Freenet Project and 12P (the Invisible Internet Project). Surveillance services can see that you are using an Onion router but not what you are doing on it.
  • These networks preserve the anonymity of users – and the site providers. This makes them popular among civil liberties groups, journalists and those who support privacy online. People who live in countries where free speech is outlawed can communicate and organise on the dark net without fear of the authorities discovering them.
  • It’s not illegal to download an encrypted browser such as Tor, but activity that is illegal offline or on the open web, such as accessing child pornography and images of abuse, buying drugs or promoting extremism, is still illegal, wherever it takes place.
    In 2013 it was estimated that out of 1500 UK users of Tor, a third were thought to be involved in criminal activity
  • Anonymity can be a good thing, making people feel safe and able to share their worries and thoughts within a close, supportive community without fear of being judged. At the same time, this anonymity can bring out the worst in people. A lot of content on the dark net is likely to upset or offend and you should bear this in mind if you do decide to explore.
  • Imagine the nastiest troll you have ever read making comments on an online forum or ‘below the line’ under a newspaper article. Now imagine that same person, safe in the knowledge that whatever they say, no one will be able to trace them through their computer or phone’s IP address. 
  • The advice on stumbling across people like this on the dark net is the same as it would be anywhere: don’t engage, don’t get angry – and don’t feed the trolls. 

By Parent Zone