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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Net creates new breed of paedophile
A stark warning about the dangers lurking on the web has been issued by UK child abuse experts as police involved in the search for missing teenager Amanda Dowler turn to the family's computer for clues.
It is believed that the schoolgirl was a regular user of internet chatrooms and police have not ruled out the possibility that her disappearance is linked to someone she met on the net.
Some believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that thousands of inappropriate relationships between adults and children are conducted online every day.
Donald Finlater works with paedophiles at the Wolvercote clinic and he believes the extent of online sexual abuse is only beginning to be realised.
Preying on children
"It is happening far more often than we are ever going to know about," he said. "My guess is that there is a phenomenal amount of preying on children happening on the internet."
Children that might otherwise have been wary of contact with strangers were happily building relationships with online buddies, said Mr Finlater.
With the proliferation of chatrooms on the internet, it is now relatively easy for children to find themselves involved in conversations of a sexual nature.
An investigation by technology news service ZDNet last year found that Yahoo chatrooms were regularly being used by paedophiles.
On the internet children are far more likely to get lured into conversations, said Mr Finlater.
"A potential predator can represent themselves as a similar-aged child or a caring adult.
"Children are wary of strangers but if you have spent months getting to know someone then they aren't a stranger any more," he said.
For children, otherwise sensible in the face of danger, it could seem a very natural step to meet up with their online friend.
Surveys suggest that around a quarter of children would be prepared to meet up with someone they meet online.
This ability to infiltrate children's lives in such an unprecedented way is creating a whole new breed of sexual offender, thinks Mr Finlater.
Paedophiles need help
He worries that the ease of getting hold of child pornography and the sense of community paedophiles can build online could be creating a "terrible legacy" for future generations as children and adults who would normally suppress their deviant sexuality find an outlet for it on the web.
He also believes the police have got to get tougher on people with illegal material on their computers - a criminal offence in the UK.
"The police know of thousands of individuals who are looking at child pornography on the internet but they choose not to arrest them because they don't want to swamp the legal system," said Mr Finlater.
"At the moment they know they can get away with it."
The Children's Charities' Coalition for Internet Safety (CHIS) is a taskforce which was set up last year following a series of high profile cases involving online paedophile rings.
John Carr is internet adviser to the group and believes the key to protecting children could lie with the manufacturers of PCs pre-installing web filters.
"There needs to be a product on the market so that parents can walk into Dixons or PC World, turn on a machine and know it is going to be safe for their children to use," he said.
"Computers should be safe at the point of sale and then it is up to parents as to whether they want to keep the software or uninstall it," he said.
However, not everyone is convinced that web filters work. A series of surveys have cast doubt on how much material they are able to block given the ever-changing nature of