Book of the week

5th May 2000 at 01:00

Today's children have grown up with the technology many older people are still trying to come to terms with. Computers are part of the furniture for them, as is the Internet.

The Government's push to connect every school to the Net allows pupils to send e-mail, surf the web and chat online at school. and as computer ownership nudges 50 per cent of the population, an increasing number can also do so at home.

The power of the Internet is unrivalled for finding information on specific topics - and information you didn't know existed - and keeping in touch with people.

But for young people, going online poses dangers. The easy availability of pornography is what concerns most adults. but as US lawyer Parry Aftab points out, children risk accessing dangerous information (bomb-building websites, for example); being stalked or harassed by other Net users; unwittingly revealing personal information about themselves by entering contests or filling out surveys; disclosing financial details such as credit card numbers; and, potentially the most serious, being lured by "cyberpredators" who want to meet them face-to-face.

Aftab runs Cyberangels, an organisation set up in 1995 by the Guardian Angels (the public safety vigilante group formed to protect passengers on the New York city subway) to teach children how to use the Internet safely. Cyberangels is currently recruiting parent supporters in Britain, and this is a UK edition of Aftab's handbook.

The trouble with the Net (and its beauty) is that you can be as honest or dishonest as you like in a chatroom. Just because your e-correspondent's "nick" (username) is Jane14, it doesn't mean you are conversing with a 14-year-old girl called Jane.

To gain an insight into how young people spend their time online, Aftab collaborated with two University of Southern Florida academics to run a survey on the website of US teen magazine Seventeen. Of the 11,000 users, all teenage girls, who completed the survey, 45 per cent had told someone they had met online details such as their real name, age, address, phone number or school, and 12 per cent had agreedto meet in person someone they had met online.

Many of the respondents admit to having had "cyber-sex", saying things they would not say to someone in person or pretending to be someone they are not. One savvy user wrote: "I once pretended to be a 16-year-old girl, I wanted to talk to my boyfriend to see if he would agree to meet her in person. He did. I told him who I really was and we broke up."

Aftab believes parents and teachers have to teach children that rules on personal safety still apply in cyberspace. Don't talk to strangers, for instance - and assume anyone you meet online is a stranger. Getting teenagers to follow these rules, however, is another matter.

The Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace cannot hide its American origins, and not every reader will warm to Aftab's conversational style.

What cannot be faulted is her depth of coverage - she covers every aspect and potential danger of children's Internet use, and suggests solutions.

The book outlines methods of finding out what files a child has been downloading or what has been said in chatrooms. Aftab spoils the party by revealing the acronyms children use in chatrooms when adults are about, such as POS (parents over shoulder) or TA (teacher alert).

The bottom line, however, is that parents need to take an interest in their children's online activities and agree rather than impose rules.

Meanwhile, they should not let fear of the unknown stop their children enjoying the benefits of the Net. A recent US survey of 1,700 parents indicated that most trusted their children's use of it, with 67 per cent acting as a "guide" rather than a "watchdog". Screening services such as (users must be pupils) provide other options for safer surfing.

Telephone call charges have stopped large numbers of British children spending endless hours online, but with unlimited access for about pound;10 a month becoming the norm that could change. Aftab's UK guide is a timely arrival.

Chris Johnston

Cyberangels: Parry Aftab is speaking at Kids Helping Kids: new approaches to child safety on the Internet, a conference to be held at the House of Lords on May 8.

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