Caught in a Web of Deceit Y; as the BBC Urges Parents of Children as Young as Two to Let Them Have Access to a Computer, the Government Has Launched a Pounds 1m Advertising Campaign Drawing Attention to the Dangers Lurking on the Internet, Particularly in Chat Rooms. but to What Extent Can Parents Safeguard Their Children?

Article excerpt

Byline: Eileen Taylor

IT WAS the scenario that many modern parents dread. ``Mum I want to go to Preston.'' ``Why?'' ``To meet this boy called Ricky.''

``Who is he?'' ``Oh, I met him in a chat room.'' That was how the conversation went recently at a Crosby home where Jenny, an intelligent mother of two teenage girls, is now stepping up her ``policing'' of their internet activities. While her 16-year-old daughter has shown little interest in chat rooms, Jenny knew that her younger daughter, now 13, went on the internet to chat to her friends and that she went into teenage chat rooms.

``But I was horrified when she said she wanted to meet this Ricky. I had warned her never to give any personal details in chat rooms . I told her that if she did, I would have the internet taken off and she knows that is no empty threat. But when she said that Ricky was 14, I asked her how she knew that and she said she had spoken to him on the phone. ``I went ballistic then. She claimed that she had rung him but I was worried that she had given him our phone number.''

Jenny (we have omitted her surname to protect her daughters) called her daughter's bluff by agreeing to a meeting on condition that her mother accompany her and that they take some of her daughter's friends along as well. ``But when she relayed that message to `Ricky' he claimed his parents had said he couldn't meet her. Now I'm wondering if that might just be an excuse and that he is not who he claims to be - that he isn't a 14-year-old boy at all but someone else. ``I warned her that he could actually be a much older man which was when she said she had spoken to him on the phone.''

Jenny was alarmed again when she learned her daughter had been pretending to be 18 in some chat rooms and told her mother she wanted to send some photographs of herself to a boy in California who she had met in a chat room.

``That did frighten me because saying that she is that age could mean she ends up in different territory altogether. But I am trying to stay calm and not go over the top because I don't want to be the enemy. I'm trying to make her realise it is because I am concerned for her. I'm frightened that if I alienate her she might just go off and meet someone without telling me.

OU can understand the appeal of these chat rooms. The fact that someone is taking an interest in you and has no preconceived ideas about you is very appealing. The trouble is that our children know more about chat rooms than we do and that gives them power. Parents need to be more educated and keep abreast of what is going on. It is a frightening time to be a parent.''

On the face of it, Jenny is already taking great care to monitor her daughter's internet access. For a start, the computer is kept in a communal room downstairs and not in a bedroom.

``I use my provider's Parental Control facility to bar access to adult websites and she cannot have access after 9pm. But as she gets home from school at 3.30pm and I get in around 6 pm, there are a couple of hours when she is using it on her own, supposedly for homework. I have warned her about paedophiles but she doesn't seem to take it in.''

Jenny is right to be concerned. Police estimate that one in five children visiting chat rooms is targeted by paedophiles. Research by the University of Central Lancashire suggests that one in 10 nine to 16-year-olds has met someone they met over the internet and that three quarters of them did so without an adult.

It is against this background that the Government has launched its pounds 1m advertising campaign alerting parents and children about the dangers of chatting with strangers online. …