Online sex plague

Madeleine Brettingham

A third of children receive explicit emails and older teenagers are at risk from networking sites

THE AMOUNT of sexual material that children view online is rising, according to research. A third of children now receive unwanted sexual content in emails, and 4 per cent have been asked for explicit photographs of themselves while surfing the web.

The study is the latest of several which give a worrying picture of young people's lives online. A recent Dutch report suggested that a quarter of boys have had a "cyber-sexual experience", and 2 per cent of girls have performed a sexual act in front of a webcam.

However, the dangers are increasingly coming from people who are familiar to users, rather than complete strangers, according to research by the London School of Economics.

Professor Sonia Livingstone, a specialist in social psychology, said that, while paedophiles were a serious risk to a small number of children, "peer sexual harassment is a risk to a much larger group of young people". The dangers are fuelled by the rising popularity of online networking sites, like MySpace, Bebo and Teenspot, where users can swap photographs and contact details.

In some cases, teenagers are visiting chat rooms explicitly to offer and request nude photographs and phone sex. Meanwhile, older users are becoming upfront about their identity. Helen Penn, head of education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said that children were not always prepared for the consequences of using the internet to explore their sexuality. "Once an image is on the internet it can be passed around, and it's there forever," she said.

The LSE study, Online Victimization of Youth, showed that those most at risk were older girls, with a good knowledge of the internet, low confidence, and poor family relations Professor Livingstone urged schools to do more to educate teens about online safety.

In contrast, a report yesterday by the think tank Demos encouraged schools not to be afraid of the internet. Sites like MySpace and Youtube encouraged creativity and helped children build friendship groups, according to the researchers.

What schools can do to help

* Monitor pupils' use of networking sites and chatrooms.

* Create an internet acceptable use policy

* Appoint an e-safety coordinator

* Use PSHE to teach the dangers of cyber-bullying and harassment

* Encourage pupils to report incidents and record them in a log book.

More ideas and resources at

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Madeleine Brettingham

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