Keep in touch with the younger generation, Tom Shepherd urges parents - get online
Parents, relax. I am 16, and since I joined the Internet, I haven't touched a computer game. I have used e-mail to chat to other Internet users in Brighton and to talk to a friend in Australia. I have talked late at night to Americans on the real-time Internet Relay Chat and made an e-mail penfriend in Virginia. I have taken part in newsgroup "discussions", passionately defending the monarchy and Tony Blair in a politics group and asking for help as a Net user in another. I have roamed the World Wide Web - stopping off at the White House and enjoying a virtual tour of some of the world's greatest cities - and downloaded pictures of my favourite jazz musicians.

Even the most technophobic parent will have heard something of the Net by now, but may have dismissed it as just another way of wasting time in front of a computer screen. They may not realise what an important part it will play in their children's lives over the next half century.

The Net, or whatever will replace it, will become the main way to retrieve information and one of the most popular methods of communication. It won't be long before life without online services will be as unimaginable as life without the television and the telephone.

The problem is the Internet is already too much fun. Mysterious Meg, a nickname used by a 12-year-old Brighton Net addict, says he gets up early in the morning, comes home from school at lunchtime and goes to bed late, to fit in as much Net "surfing" as he can.

I spend between 30 and 60 hours online a month. When I log on, I check my mailbox. Often there are e-mails from other Brighton Net users, a message from my uncle, or a letter from a penfriend. Last week, I had an e-mail from an American camera assistant on NYPD Blue, who had seen it listed on my WWW homepage as my favourite TV programme.

Meg and I pay for Net access ourselves. My allowance and Saturday job earnings come to nearly £70 a month, and Meg has three paper rounds with an income of £450 a quarter. A subscription to an Internet Service Provider costs between £10 and £15 a month, but as you connect to the Net with a local phone call, the phone bill can really mount up. My first month's BT bill was £30. The Net was gobbling up all my money without me being able to use it as much as I would like.

Enter the cable television company, Nynex, which offered Sky TV, a new phoneline straight to my room and free calls to local numbers at off peak times. All for £30 a month. As Pavilion Internet, my local service provider, is linked to Nynex, that means I have unlimited evening and weekend access for no extra cost.

Parents buy personal computers so their children can do school work on them; now they should buy Internet connections too. Although you have to use a computer to access it, the Internet is real life, created and used by real people all around the globe. Go on. Get your teenager on the Net and watch what happens. The sound of gunfire and screeching tyres may become a thing of the past.