Amid mounting criticism that they could do more to combat the threat of internet paedophilia, MySpace, Bebo and other "social networking" websites are taking the unprecedented step this week of meeting parents, teachers and police to improve online safety.
The conviction last month of a 21-year-old student, Lee Costi, who had sex with girls aged 13 and 14 after meeting them online, highlighted the risks posed by chatrooms and sites where young people post personal information that can be picked up by predators as well as friends. The user profiles typically include age, hobbies, schools and neighbourhoods.
The websites were shaken by the $30m (£16m) lawsuit filed against MySpace in Texas, where a teenage girl claims to have been sexually assaulted by another MySpace user. The sites hope to be allowed to strengthen self-regulation before they face government restrictions or similar legal actions here.
They have been summoned to a four-day summit at the Pimlico headquarters of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre - a Home Office agency bringing together police officers, forensic psychologists and social workers from the NSPCC. Concerned parents and children can attend the meetings, running until Thursday, by registering at ceop.gov.uk.
A spokeswoman for Bebo, which has four million users in the UK, said it realised it needed to improve its monitoring systems. She said that in future the site would be better at identifying inappropriate language as well as "images with a high proportion of skin", tackling headteachers' concern that young female pupils are posting provocative pictures of themselves online, where they can attract unwanted attention.
Monitors will also search for instances where users have lied about their age to lure others into revealing intimate details. "We want to make Bebo a hostile environment for people with ill intent," she said.
The children's charity NCH released research yesterday showing that a third of children use blogs and social networking sites at least twice a week. Its report emphasised the "alarming gap in knowledge between parents and their children when it comes to technology". One in 12 young people has met someone in the real world after encountering them online, according to the London School of Economics. T
Online safety campaigns have traditionally focused on telling children not to reveal personal details over the internet - an approach experts now acknowledge to be unrealistic.
"Social networking sites are about friendships and a lot of them are based around existing groups of friends or schools, so giving out personal information is routine and to be expected," said Jo Bryce, director of research at the Cyberspace Research Unit, University of Central Lancashire.
"Parents and teachers may feel that the best thing to do is switch off the internet, but doing that removes all the benefits. It's about making parents aware of the technology, and pressuring the sites to work on their safety responsibilities."Reuse content