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Hang ups

Last week I explained how you could stay on-line for the whole summer without having to pay a penny to an Internet Service Provider. But if you are a teacher, don't hog the computer. Allow your children to have a go; if you don't have any of your own, borrow the neighbour's.

Observe them closely and you will be able to decide for yourself if the Government's promise of an e-mail address for every child is really as exciting as the technophiles claim.

In a future column, I'll wax lyrical about the World Wide Web, but discovering treasures in this Aladdin's Cave is never quite as exciting for a child as finding that someone has gone to the bother of sending him or her an e-mail message.

Children - especially boys - who wouldn't dream of resorting to Basildon Bond, thoroughly enjoy exchanging e-mail. It's the modern equivalent of whispering into a cocoa tin on a string: it isn't what they communicate that matters, but the sheer thrill of being able to communicate at all.

For better or worse, children will quickly succumb to the distinctive prose style which characterises e-mail. It has its roots in colloquial speech rather than the niceties of standard English and this is reflected in some of its peculiar conventions. Using upper case, FOR EXAMPLE, is regarded as shouting and thus is bad form. Then there are the emoticons - little symbols created from Qwerty characters - which serve to convey the spirit in which a sentence is written. Take a sideways look at :-) , for instance, and you will see why it means "I am being funny".

There is no shortage of people with whom children can correspond. Most of the sites on the Web welcome responses. But it's more enjoyable to chew the digital cud with a few well-chosen penpals (or keypals, as they are called on the Internet). Dozens, if not hundreds, of Web sites contain "noticeboards" where children can leave details of themselves or look for potential chums.

For example, they might feel like writing to one of the teenagers currently advertising for a keypal: Rachel who lives in LA and "is crazy about rollerblades, Alanis Morissette, Loony Toons, sleep-overs and reading Goosebumps". But before children drop her a line, they should first treat themselves to a goosebump or three of their own as they remember the wolf who disguised himself as Little Red Riding Hood's grannie.

In cyberspace, a wolf can just as easily pass himself off as an All-American schoolgirl. Children who have been warned about talking to strangers, should be reminded that they don't come much stranger than some of the low-life lurking on the Internet. So extreme caution is essential, especially in the early exchanges: no addresses, no telephone numbers, no plans to meet up somewhere cool away from the prying eyes of grown-ups.

Anonymity, however, has its advantages. The Internet is the great leveller: words on a VDU betray nothing about the writer's gender, race, background - or age. So children can communicate with anyone on an equal footing, without the fear of being patronised or told that it's way past their bed time. Scarey Spice, Tony Blair and Father Christmas are among the legions of VIPs who publish their e-mail addresses on the Web and, allegedly, welcome mail. But you don't have to be a celeb, megastar or living legend to feel a tingle of excitement when you log on and find that there is e-mail waiting for you. So if your children, or your neighbour's, are really stuck for someone to write to, they could always try the e-mail address below. But, please, ask them to be sparing with the emoticons.

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