IoS investigation: Children & the Net

1 in 12 teenage users has met a stranger via the internet<br/>6 in 10 have personal profiles on networking sites<br/>50,000 paedophiles are online at any one time<br/>Two-thirds of 12 to 19-year-old users hide online activities<br/>MPs call for 'e-safety' lessons in British schools
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Schoolchildren are to be taught about the dangers of the internet amid growing concern at the threat posed by paedophiles targeting chatrooms and social networking sites.

A "family-friendly" system of "kite-marking", on government-approved websites and computer software, is one of several measures being considered by the Home Secretary, John Reid.

Children will also receive lessons in "e-safety" in the drive to educate young people to protect themselves in cyberspace.

The moves follow a far-reaching investigation by The Independent on Sunday into the scale of the threat to children, revealing that there are more than 50,000 abusers surfing the net at any time. One in 12 teenagers hasmet face-to-face a stranger they first encountered online.

The IoS investigation reveals that abusers are obtaining the names and addresses of potential victims by hacking into "buddy lists".

The classes, which will be part of the national curriculum, will be rolled out nationally from September after being piloted in a number of schools.

The Government's internet child protection watchdog, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, will also launch a national campaign warning of the dangers of sharing information online.

Paedophiles are also hijacking innocent images of toddlers and infants in online family albums and using them to create images of child abuse.

In some cases, offenders are using pornographic images to "normalise" child sex and convince victims that it is not taboo.

Children are unwittingly leaving themselves open to abuse by revealing personal details about themselves, say children's charities. The rise in popularity of sites such as Bebo and My Space has made young people vulnerable to exploitation. Companies running the sites are working with police to improve security, but child protection experts say that more must be done.

"Although grooming via the internet is not a new occurrence, the simplicity with which anybody can find out hugely personal details and pictures at the click of a button means that children are unwittingly laying themselves open to abuse," said Nikki Kerr, from Kidscape.

Record numbers of teenagers and children are signing up to "friendship" sites, which are replacing traditional meeting grounds such as the park or after-school clubs.

A spate of high-profile cases in which children have been targeted over the internet include that of Mark Bedford, whose alleged victims include more than 40 girls in Kent and the South-east of England. The 21-year-old Canadian who is facing child pornography charges used the pseudonym Supalover666.

Simon Thomas, a church minister from Hythe in Hampshire and father of four, was sentenced on Monday to life in prison for exposing himself to boys online.

MPs are also calling for an international "children's charter", which would outline new standards for internet providers and protect children from abuse on the web.