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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Lure of the chatroom
Children on computer
One in five children regularly use chatrooms, reports suggest
Shevaun Pennington, the 12-year-old who ran off with a man she met on the web, is hardly alone in chatting to an older man on the internet.

Making friends on the web and internet dating is a growing culture among her contemporaries, researchers say.

Some of Shevaun's 12-year-old friends from Lowton High School described to BBC Radio 4's Today programme how popular chatrooms were, particularly among the girls.

"In my class they don't like a lot of the boys, they don't find us very nice so they go after older people," said Jordan Brookes.

"You can go into chatrooms and get e-mail addresses from all over the world, that's how people order boyfriends," said Jack Charles.

You can go into chatrooms and get e-mail addresses from all over the world, that's how people order boyfriends
Jack Charles, Shevaun's classmate

Jack said most of his friends were aware of the potential dangers of paedophiles disguising themselves as children on the web, and did their best to check people's identities.

"There's quite a lot of paedophiles over the internet," he said.

"If you click on the right e-mail name and see the e-mail address, you click on it and you can go on profile, and it tells you all the details.

"I go on profiles and see their age and stuff, it's dead popular.

"But half of them they don't even fill in the profiles, you don't know who you're talking to, don't know what they're like."

Paedophile lurking

If he found he was talking to somebody whose profile was empty, he said, "there's no real point in talking to them, so I'd just click off."

Dr Rachel O'Connell, director of the Cyberspace Research Centre at the University of Central Lancashire, is presenting a paper on children's use of chatrooms to the Home Office on Thursday.

Paedophiles regard chatrooms for teens and children, in terms of picking up kids, as akin to shooting fish in a barrel
Rachel O'Connell, Cyberspace Research Centre
She said the two friends of Shevaun seemed absolutely typical in their use of the internet.

"We travelled around to 42 schools in the UK and conducted a large piece of research involving 1,400 children," she said.

"We found that one in five of them aged between nine and 16 used chat on a regular basis.

"Over half of them reported engaging in conversations of a sexual nature.

"A quarter of them had received requests to meet face-to-face.

"And one in 10 had had accepted those requests and had met."

Danger signs

Those children who had face-to-face meetings on the whole reported having a "really good time", she pointed out - typically meeting other children, rather than an adult paedophile.

But that did not mean the paedophiles were not out there.

One in five children aged nine to 16 regularly use chatrooms
More than half have engaged in sex chat
A quarter have received requests to meet face-to-face
One in 10 had met face-to-face
Source: Cyberspace Research Centre

"Paedophiles regard chatrooms for teens and children, in terms of picking up kids, as akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

"They'll try their luck with one and if it doesn't work they'll move on very quickly to another."

Parents could not realistically be expected to watch their children all the time they were on the internet, she said.

But they could give their children some protection by making them aware of danger signs.

"It is a difficult issue, I admit, to discuss with children - but there are very obvious points at which adults can set boundaries."

Stages to sex

She said there was a "fairly consistent" pattern in the way paedophiles approached children in chatrooms.

"The initial one being a friendship forming phase in which they'll say to the child 'oh you sound lovely, let's talk in a private chatroom'.

1: Friendship: Flattering a child into a private chatroom
2: Relationship-forming: Asking the child what problems they have
3: Mutuality: Identifying with those problems to create bond
4: Risk-assessment: Asking about location of computer etc
5: Exclusivity: Using powerful language to create trust and often love
6: Starting sex chat
Source: Cyberspace Research Centre
"So they isolate the child from the chatroom which contains many chat users into a one-to-one private chatroom.

"They'll move then onto a relationship-forming phase and ask the child for a photograph."

They would also then try to establish where the child is having problems in life, she said.

"Whether it's with schoolmates, whether it's parents, they'll use that as a leverage point to create a sense of mutuality."

'Powerful language'

They then move onto a risk-assessment phase where it would be clear to a researcher, although not necessarily to a child, that the chatter was an adult or an adolescent with a sexual interest, she said.

Often victims really do believe they've actually fallen in love
Rachel O'Connell
"There are questions about where the computer is located, who else uses the computer, be sure you don't save copies of conversations."

The next phase was an "exclusivity" one, building on the sense of mutual love and trust between the pair, she said.

"The language that they use is very, very powerful. And often the reports that we get of victims they really do believe they've actually fallen in love, that this is the fairytale romance that's come true in a chatroom."

The paedophile may then reach the point where they engaged in sex chat, asked questions about sex or asked for a naked photograph, she said.

Dr Rachel O'Connell, Cyberspace Research Centre
"There is a fairly consistent pattern to the stages paedophiles go through in a chatroom"

CD targets 'online child abuse'
08 May 03  |  Northern Ireland
Chatroom provider fails safety test
04 Feb 03  |  Technology
Online child safety drive launched
06 Jan 03  |  UK News
'How I lured paedophiles online'
07 Aug 01  |  UK News


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