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Teenage chat is no innocent game

I HAVE spent the past few evenings hanging around teenage chat rooms on the Internet. I have tried teenage chat, some adult-only rooms, and last night I joined something called insult chat that was all about, you guessed it, insults.

Of course, a chat room is not a room at all. It is a box on your computer screen that appears once you join an online chat service. Joining is easy. From your home page, you click through a few links to a chat server and type in your e-mail address. Strangers from across the country or around the world, who have joined like you, type messages on their keyboard that appear, like fast-scrolling TV credits, on the screens of all those signed in to chat.

Depending on whom you listen to, chat rooms either give teenagers a safe environment where they can experiment with their developing personality or they are places well suited to paedophiles who crave anonymous contact with children and teenagers.

According to information technology specialists who manage school access to the Internet, they serve little useful purpose. One regional grid, that links hundreds of schools to the Internet, struggles to control chat with on average three to five new chat sites added to its banned list every week.

My experience of chat is limited but nevertheless illuminating. It would be impossible to know with whom I chatted as one of the rules is to be someone other than yourself, but I certainly saw no sign of developing personalities. Most dialogue was sexual, unsavoury or abusive; some was racist. Chatters said things online that they would surely shrink from saying face to face. Kids who have grown up with online gaming showed little realisation that chat is not a game, it is other people out there. Any paedophile would struggle to have anything but a one-track conversation. Dialogue averaged about five or six words per line. Lots of chatters gave their location in order to find someone nearby (maybe) with whom they could start a private chat.

It was easy to progress an online dialogue to an offer to meet. I turned it down but what would an adolescent's perspective have been? That online relationships progress to real meetings is a fact. And all this is happening before most teachers and parents have had a chance to cach up.

Who else is there to oversee teenage chat? Some chat sites offer guidance on how to handle that first meeting - stay in a public place, leave getting into someone's car until the next meeting, and so on, but expecting Internet companies to police chat is naive. Most chat rooms by-pass any filtering software you may have installed on your computer. Popular home pages like Freeserve and MSN offer mainly unmoderated chat. Even when chat is advertised as moderated, this may mean a computer-generated referee intermittently entering rooms with something like "guardian" as a preface to its screen name, which rather defeats the object.

For Internet companies, chat is big business. On average, chatters spend 75 minutes online compared to 10 minutes had they come online to search for information. Your Internet service provider wants you to talk. For advertisers, chatrooms are a major source of e-mail addresses. For a few hundred dollars anyone can download software, called an e-mail harvester, log on to a chat room and sit and collect the details of everyone who comes through. Spend a few hours in a chat room and the content of your e-mail inbox will change for the worse as unsolicited messages pile in.

So how should we quantify chat? The media alert us to its most alarming potential - to invite teenagers, with their potent mix of raging hormones and faulty judgment, into an anonymous world that slides into an intimate one.

The consequence can be literally fatal. In the United States, there is second-generation chat room crime: a 15-year-old, accused of sexually assaulting then killing an 11-year-old he first met online, had himself allegedly been sexually assaulted by a man he met through an America Online chat room. Almost on a monthly basis, schools in America are shut following threats against teachers and pupils in chat rooms.

Less obvious, is the potential for us to be short-changed; for the amazing Internet to become a waste land for teenagers, as has been claimed of US television before it. At the very least, worthy politicians who talk about a world of lifelong learning once we are all online, need a reality check.

Debbie Davies is a journalist and author of the BBC's Webwise tutorial for online beginners

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