Any parent who has ever picked up a newspaper will be aware that paedophiles use the internet to groom potential victims. It is the stuff of lurid tabloid headlines and parental nightmares. There are no reliable statistics about the extent of this problem but it is reckoned "several hundred" children have been assaulted or raped as a result of an initial contact made via the internet. This is a tiny fraction of the online youth population but, as John Carr, new technology adviser at leading children's charity NCH, points out, the fact that it's a statistical rarity is no consolation if it's your child.
There are a number of ways of protecting children from online grooming. The most important defence is to educate children about how to use internet, e-mail and chat rooms safely. "The best filtering product for a child is that which exists between their left and right ears," says Carr.
There are a number of free online resources that can help parents and teachers educate children in the dos and don'ts of safe online behaviour. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has a good website (www.thinkuknow. co.uk) with advice for parents and teachers, while there are a number of interactive websites that, through a series of online games and quizzes, teach children how to use the internet, chat rooms and e-mail: check out www.kidsmart.org.uk or the CyberCafe game at www.gridclub.com.
Software publisher Sherston produces two packages, Web Detectives and Email Detectives, that allow children aged from six to 11 to learn how to use the internet and e-mail within a safe offline environment.
"Children develop their skills within a simulated environment so it's safe, but also realistic so that their skills are transferable when they do go online," says Tim Meek of Sherston's education department.
But education isn't the only line of defence. Technology provides an increasingly effective safety-net, blocking dubious websites or identifying potential online predators.
"Paedophile grooming is quite rare but it's important to be constantly vigilant," says Derek Allen, managing director of Surrey-based software company Securus, which provides a desktop monitoring solution for schools. The software, which will cost the average secondary school around £4,000, works by searching for inappropriate words and phrases and monitoring internet activity. It provides teachers with screenshots of every violation, along with details of the user, workstation, time, date and nature of the incident.
"We have seen possible situations [of paedophile grooming] develop, which the school has then been able to nip in the bud," says Allen. The system has also caught paedophiles working in schools by identifying at least three teachers who had downloaded child pornography on to their laptops at home, he adds. The teachers were dismissed.
Securus can also help clamp down on "cyberbullying", an issue that was recently highlighted by schools minister Jim Knight after new research revealed that up to one in five pupils have experienced bullying on mobile phones or via the internet. This hi-tech bullying can be very destructive as it allows bullies to extend their reach from the school yard into their victims' homes and bedrooms (the Bullying Online website has some useful tips on how to deal with cyberbullies: see www.bullying.co.uk).
The technology doesn't even have to be used in a particularly sophisticated way for bullies to have an impact. In one case a girl created Word documents abusing other students, printed off multiple copies that were displayed around the school and then deleted the Word file to avoid detection. When Securus was introduced at the school, it quickly identified the PC used to create the offending documents plus the user name, date and time.
"The abuse was stopped within two hours yet it had been going on for weeks," says Allen.
Predator grooming and cyberbullying are the nasty end of the risk spectrum but there are also real concerns about children accessing unsuitable material online. This doesn't necessarily mean pornographic images (although such material, much of it illegal, is rife): the internet is home to some horrific content, from videos of decapitations in Iraq to images of road traffic accident victims. Children who may be going through a difficult time, perhaps those with eating disorders or a tendency to harm themselves, can also access websites that can encourage dangerous behaviour.
There are a wide range of internet management tools that can block access to undesirable websites. At home, most internet service providers (ISPs), such as BTYahoo! or AOL, will have a complete suite of child protection filters built in. But concerned parents can also buy products, such as Net Nanny and CyberPatrol, to provide an extra layer of protection, perhaps to safeguard very young children or those with special educational needs.
With the internet part of daily classroom life, schools are also careful to have the right blocking and filtering software in place. This needn't be expensive: CensorNet, for example, is free and takes about half an hour to download.
"It creates a complete audit trail of users so pupils can see when and why they have been denied access to a site," says Tim Lloyd of CensorNet. "This information is then logged by the ICT manager, who can take action as appropriate."
It's a battle to keep these controls in place. IT-savvy students are increasingly clever at circumnavigating the blocking and filtering software installed on school networks. Proxy anonymisers, for example, allow children in the know to bypass the security software and have free access to all sites on the web. Another problem is children bringing content into school that is beyond their years - the increasingly popular YouTube video website is one source of such material.
However, Derek Allen of Securus says that once pupils realise the school has an effective blocking and monitoring system in place the message spreads like wildfire. "Once they realise they can be quickly identified and caught, they realise it's not worth getting into trouble and abuse of the system tends to reduce."
He adds: "This isn't a question of invading pupils' privacy. It's about protecting them."Reuse content