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EDITIONS
 Monday, 6 January, 2003, 13:09 GMT
The threat of the net
Internet user
One in five nine-to-16-year-olds use chatrooms
As the government launches a 1m campaign warning of the dangers of internet paedophiles, BBC News Online's Denise Winterman looks at the risks of going online.

The explosion in popularity of the internet in recent years has been mirrored by increasing worries about how safe it is for youngsters.

Concern centres around the use of chatrooms, which millions of young people in the UK use every day to contact other web users.

It is no consolation to those children who are abused that statistically it was very unlikely to happen to them

NCH spokesman
And high profile cases of paedophiles abusing youngsters they have met on the internet have only fuelled fears that chatrooms are leaving children vulnerable to abusers who are protected by the cloak of anonymity.

But just how risky is it letting young people chat online?

According to research by the University of Central Lancashire last year, one in five nine-to-16-year-olds use chatrooms.

Of those one in 10 have met in person somebody they communicated with online.

More disturbingly, three-quarters of those who went to face-to-face meetings were not accompanied by an adult.

And a third did not know where to report unpleasant experiences and would not have told parents.

Children's charities and child protection agencies say the risk of children being lured into sexual abuse via the internet is "very real".

'Invaluable tool'

But they are also keen promote the internet's benefits, calling it an invaluable educational tool.

The NCH says that over the past two years criminal charges have been bought in the case of 16 children raped or abused by adults they met on the net.

Once contact is made in a chatroom, it can escalate very quickly to mobile phone calls, text messaging and, eventually, face-to-face contact.

It says while the risk of falling prey to a paedophile is low statistically, awareness campaigns are important.

"Paedophiles are a clear and present danger when using chatrooms," a NCH spokesman told BBC News Online.

"It is no consolation to those children who are abused that statistically it was very unlikely to happen to them. We need to wipe out abuse totally and that is why campaigns like this are vital.

The internet is a great tool, it opens up all sorts of possibilities and we don't want to scare people about using it

Home Office Minister
Hilary Benn
"But the last thing we want is for young people not to use the internet, it is an invaluable tool and an integrated part of their lives at home and school. We just want them to be safe."

Children's charity Childline says it receives "hundreds" of calls a year from children who have been "very distressed by experiences they've come across on the net".

Chief executive Dr Carol Easton said: "They're putting themselves at risk and they've been abused as a result, so the dangers are real."

Parent's concern about chat rooms is often fuelled by their own lack of knowledge about computers and the internet.

According to an EC-funded study by Childnet International - a charity promoting safe internet use for children - parents across Europe feel excluded by their children's superior knowledge and technical skills.

This can make the youngsters vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous individuals and is another reason why safety campaigns are needed, says the NCH.

Generation gap

"We were all taught about talking to strangers by our parents but there are few people who are computer savvy enough to pass on advice to kids who use the internet," said its spokesman.

"They are the first generation to be brought up using computers in their everyday lives and there is an information gap that needs to be filled.

"Hopefully this won't be the case in the future. They will pass on their knowledge to other generations and that gap will be filled."

The government is funding the latest campaign, but it is also keen not to "demonise" the internet.

"The internet is a great tool, it opens up all sorts of possibilities and we don't want to scare people about using it, " said Home Office Minister Hilary Benn.

"We just want to make sure that when you use the internet you do so safely."

Childnet agrees that chatting online can be educational and help young people develop social skills.

It believes that while the threat posed by paedophiles should not be sensationalised, it is ever present.

See also:

06 Jan 03 | Technology
06 Jan 03 | Technology
19 Nov 02 | Politics
19 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
27 Nov 01 | Education
06 Jul 00 | UK
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