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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 02:13 GMT
Children ignore net chat dangers
Teenager using the internet, Boy using
Some children are taking risks in chatrooms
Children are still arranging face-to-face meetings with people they talk to online despite warnings about the dangers of internet chatrooms.

And 60% of children do not know that people they chat to online might not be who they say they are, a study shows.

The findings came to light in research carried out to support Safer Internet Day that is being held on 6 February.

The day will showcase tools parents can use to educate their offspring and that can spot children ignoring the risks.

Risky business

The good news from the research was that chatrooms are losing favour with many children, said Rachel O'Connell, head of research at the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire that carried out the study.

"There's been a drop in the overall numbers using chat," she said, "but the proportion of those going to face-to-face meetings has increased."

Follow-up studies that looked at the attitudes and psychology of children and teenagers that still use chatrooms were revealing, said Ms O'Connell.

"There's definitely a profile emerging here," she said. "We're dealing with a group of children with a particular understanding and set of behaviours."

Rachel O'Connell
Parents are fully involved with children's friendships offline, the same care needs to be applied to online friends too
Rachel O'Connell, University of Central Lancashire
Many of the youngsters who still use chatrooms take more risks and are less bound by social inhibitions, said Ms O'Connell, and were more likely to ignore warnings and meet the people they talk to online.

Figures collected by Japan's National Police Agency about crimes associated with electronic dating and chat sites shows that the dangers are real.

It found a 190% increase in arrests for crimes against children associated with dating sites between 2001 and 2002.

Ms O'Connell warned that the way to change children's behaviour was not to try to scare them into avoiding chatrooms as the mention of danger might make using them more attractive.

Instead, she said, parents need to get involved in what their children do online.

"Parents are fully involved with children's friendships offline," she said. "The same care needs to be applied to online friends too."

Ms O'Connell said research had produced tools that schools could use to spot those children that might be most at risk.

It has also shown that any advice given to children needs to be tailored to the different things that the net is used for.

Ms O'Connell said the research had shown that fewer children were giving out personal details in chatrooms but more were putting them in e-mail messages.

Safe surfing

The interim results of the research were released to coincide with Safer Internet Day that offers advice to parents worried about what their children do online and brings together the organisations and agencies working to educate children about the net.

The day is being held in 16 countries and will showcase educational materials created by schools as well as initiatives that try to get children using the net responsibly.

In the UK a conference is being held at the British Library in London to bring together many of the organisations involved in making the net a safer place.

It will also feature contributions of children about their experiences of going online.

Ms O'Connell said it was encouraging that so many organisations were pulling together to help kids use the net safely.

In the UK the day is being co-ordinated by the Cyberspace Research Unit and Liverpool Hope University.

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