The secret world of the net

Online networking is taking over the social lives of children. It's fun, cheap and easy, and most adults haven't a clue about it. But they need to. By Sophie Goodchild and Jonathan Owen

With a click of her mouse, Claudia Green logged on to the internet to catch up on the latest news and gossip with her friends. The 16-year-old was doing what millions of young people do every day: socialising in cyberspace, the 21st-century form of human bonding fast replacing hanging out on street corners or in the local park or youth club.

As she sat in her bedroom, Claudia chose to visit MSN Messenger, an online messaging site which, along with other so-called social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo, has transformed how children and teenagers spend time together. They have also turned the fun of making new friends into a money-spinning global business.

They allow even the shyest adolescents to form relationships through a system of "buddies", a personal list of internet friends or messaging partners who share the same tastes and interests. Through what is known as dialoguing, anyone with a password can exchange messages on-screen with like-minded souls, about their home life, school or any other personal details of their lives.

And instead of sending a photograph of themselves in the post, children can buy a "webcam" for as little as £10 to distribute live images of themselves to whoever they choose over the internet.

As Claudia clicked on to her "buddy list" and started dialoguing with a friend, a box popped up asking her if she wanted to accept a message from an unknown sender not on her buddy list. The address was not familiar but the teenager thought it might be a friend of an existing buddy so she clicked "accept".

The online chat started innocently, but then it took a shocking turn when the sender asked if she wanted to see his webcam footage.

"The guy said he was from Greece and he had found my email address on a mailing list from a forwarded email," says Claudia. "He sent a request to accept his webcam and I was curious so I just clicked 'accept' and started talking with some other friends and then I saw that he didn't have any trousers or pants on and was touching himself. I had such a fright I pressed block and delete straight away."

Traumatised by the experience, Claudia's trust in the internet has been destroyed. "They're all weird in those chatrooms. They think you're 18 so they talk to you and proposition you. They say disgustingly dirty things."

Claudia was the victim of a new type of predator: the internet sex abuser. He takes advantage of the growth of websites that market themselves as virtual meeting places for teenagers who unwittingly supply intimate personal details, including where they go to school, their home addresses and the sort of boys they like.

Child protection campaigners warn that, without proper security and safeguards, these sites are "an Aladdin's cave" for abusers who can easily register under an assumed name, create a false persona and then pick and choose which children to "groom" for sexual acts.

The size of the threat from these abusers is not known, but the FBI estimates that there could be as many as 50,000 paedophiles operating online at any one time.

A London School of Economics (LSE) investigation has revealed that at least one in 12 children has met a stranger online, that a quarter have received pornographic junk mail, and a third have been subjected to unwanted sexual comments.

"These social networking sites are just another vehicle for individuals to target children," says Jennifer Lee, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US, where the problems are acute. "The technology itself is not inherently evil, it is just the actions of a minority of individuals."

Experts warn that the internet offers abusers almost "infinite" opportunities to exploit vulnerable or naive victims. Offline, a child sex abuser may spend up to four years trying to get close to a victim. But with the web as their hunting ground, they can quickly gain the trust of their target through cynical techniques such as using the same language - known as "text speak" - to appear to be a genuine buddy.

The Government has launched a new internet child protection watchdog, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop). At its London headquarters, undercover officers try to hunt down internet paedophiles before they can turn more children into victims.

Often they only have fragments of information, such as an incomplete image or part of an address, to work on and are reliant on intelligence from agencies such as Interpol, the Metropolitan Police and regional forces to complete pieces of the puzzle that will enable them to unmask an offender. Officers stare at flickering screens as they work tirelessly online, posing as children in a bid to flush out abusers.

Behind another set of security doors, marked "Warning: screens may contain sensitive images", is Ceop's key crime-fighting tool, a database holding more than 750,000 child images.

Most would find the pictures held on ChildBase, including those of children being forced to perform sexual acts and being raped, unbearable to look at. But the database provides investigators with a vital system of cross-referencing through the use of powerful facial recognition software that enables them to identify abused children.

Police officers who have to examine them - and are offered regular counselling - are not necessarily focusing on the graphic images. Their job is to minutely search the pictures for tiny clues which may lead them to the abusers. They can narrow down the search for a victim or suspect even to the nearest town. Clothing companies help Ceop to identify where a victim's outfit was made.

Ceop's 100 staff include those seconded from children's charities and internet companies whose job is to devise awareness campaigns, strategies for making children more security savvy, and to post safety advice on sites. Its investigators say internet growth means children suffer abuse every time their harrowing image is circulated. A typical opening line for an abuser who has infiltrated a site is to ask the age, sex and address of their victim and then if they are a member of any clubs. Sometimes they are lone abusers; others are part of huge networks with hundreds of underground members.

The growth in cheap webcams enables these groomers to dupe children into believing they can be trusted by posing as someone else through images which they post out.

Paul Griffiths, the head of victim identification at Ceop, said that many groomers are difficult to spot and do not fit the stereotype of the loner in a dirty mac.

"Some may have problems forming relationships, but I've arrested otherwise respectable married men who would never consider abusing their own children but go on the web to find others to abuse," he says. "You get professionals who seek sex with young boys but do not consider themselves gay."

Abusers are also taking advantage of the fact that for young people the web is the new equivalent of "fumbling behind the bike sheds", where young people use webcams and chat rooms to explore their own sexuality without realising they are sharing private moments with the world and laying themselves open to exploitation. "An experienced groomer will be able to influence children by saying he'll show the child photos, but then say 'I'll need your password to get into your mailbox so I can send them'," says Mr Griffiths. He warns that children should never webcam with people they do not know.

"It's a form of subtle blackmail. And once they have personal details and passwords they can then get into the buddy list and start targeting other children," he says.

Obtaining evidence that will lead to a prosecution is obviously an important part of the work that Ceop carries out, but its main aim is to prevent offences taking place. This is only achieved through educating children and parents.

"When children are walking down a dark street they sense danger. But in the security of their own bedroom they don't," says Mr Griffiths.

"Now you can go online and if you don't get any response you just move on to the next.

"It's not an infinite supply of victims but it's a very large number," he adds. "It's much better to ensure your child is safe and aware rather than denying them online access."

Child protection experts fall short of calling for the shutting down of sites such as Bebo and YouTube, which they say have had a huge positive influence in the lives of young people. Instead, they say that education is the best way forward.

Detectives who police the web are keen to point out that the majority of the graphic images they encounter appear on illegal sites run by paedophile networks, and that the worst thing a parent could do is literally to "pull the plug" on their child's computer.

Notwithstanding the potential risks, the internet has transformed the way children and teenagers spend their free time.

In particular, the popularity of social networking sites has expanded massively over the past year. More than 60 per cent of British 13 to 17-year-olds now are members of these "buddy clubs", which are free to join and therefore within the reach of children from every social sphere.

They are an instant way of keeping in touch with existing friends, relieve boredom and enable young people to share life experiences, as well as the trials and triumphs of growing up, with each other.

According to Google, the British spend more time on the internet than watching television and experts point out that the web is an excellent way for children to communicate and preferable to staring mutely at a television screen.

However, others say the internet was built without proper thought to security issues. James Reynolds, the former head of the Anti-Paedophile Unit at Scotland Yard, warned that recent cases involving the web and child abuse are not just one-offs.

"Children nowadays are far more technologically aware and know no fear. But they are not that smart when it comes to life's rich tapestry. They have to be reminded that they can be vulnerable online."

The companies that market their friendship sites to children and teenagers say they take the matter of child protection "very seriously".

Matt Colbourne, the chief executive of the youth community site Lunarstorm.com, said: "Industry needs to drive change. It is in our commercial interests to ensure that, as far as is possible, our users are kept safe from harassment and from the attentions of sexual predators."

For Claudia Green, the experience of being targeted by a web abuser is one she will never get over.

"Now I don't accept anyone whose address I don't recognise unless they've told me they're going to add me," she says.

"The guy who targeted me had no idea who I was. I could easily have been a 10-year-old."

Additional reporting by Sam Evitt, Karen Yossman and Catherine Baum

www.bebo.com

WHAT IT IS

A social networking website that lets people create their own profiles, look at those of others and keep in touch with friends. Profile information includes fears, joys, favourite music, film and sport. There are five million users in the UK.

HOW IT WORKS

Bebo has a whiteboard for other Bebo users who visit the page to write or draw on, using a special artist software. It has a support team to monitor security, and the homepage has links to safety tips and a guide for parents on cyber-bullying.

WHAT USERS SAY

"When it comes to giving any personal information I wouldnot give it out, but there are quite a few people who would. I think people should be more aware because it is online and not reality. People may not be who they seem."

Richard Holden, Belfast, 18

spaces.live.com

WHAT IT IS

A website that allows people to create and manage their blogs from computers or mobile phones. It is a social networking platform that lets people publish their thoughts, photos and interests. Windows Live Spaces has 120 million users worldwide.

HOW IT WORKS

Windows Live Spaces has a safety tab on its homepage with instructions on choosing your audience, being in control and tracking visitors. With statistics on the settings tab, users can get an idea of where visitors to their space are coming from.

WHAT USERS SAY

"Only my friends and family can add me as a friend because they are the only ones who need to see my profile. I have friends who talk to people they don't know because it shows they are popular because they have more people to chat to." Keisha Patel, Leicester, 12

piczo.com

WHAT IT IS

An online photo album and galleries website where users can share their photos and stories. Piczo users can upload photos and chat on message boards. Among 13- to 15-year-olds, Piczo was the fastest-growing online brand in the UK last year.

HOW IT WORKS

Piczo has approximately 20 people at any given time dedicated to monitoring the website content. It has a "one strike and you're out" policy. Action is made to address abuse, and may include removing the user immediately. Piczo claims to remove offensive content.

WHAT USERS SAY

"It is just much more fun than the phone. All my friends are on it and it's great if you want to find things out. It's much quicker than a book. Once someone pretended to be a girl called Louise, but I knew it wasn't. It was quite weird." Chantelle Gillett, Norfolk, 13

www.myspace.com

WHAT IT IS

MySpace is a website that lets people create their own webspace about themselves and their friends. There are 98 million members worldwide and more than four million UK subscribers, making it the seventh most popular website in the UK.

HOW IT WORKS

It allows users to create an online network of friends and contacts. To get on to the site, users need a password and username. Everyone has his or her profile, which describes their hobbies and interests. The profile is also a place to upload photos and write journals.

WHAT USERS SAY

"At first I had pictures of myself where I was in quite a low-cut top. I was bombarded by guys wanting to be my friend. These guys blatantly just trawl the net perving over private photos. After that I really toned my page down." Lydia Evitt, London, 17

www.lunarstorm.co.uk

WHAT IT IS

Lunarstorm is a virtual community website operated by LunarWorks, a company based in Sweden, since 1999. A Lunarstorm profile contains a picture and paragraph of text written by the user.

HOW IT WORKS

Photos have to be approved by LunarWorks before they are added to the profile. An automated system allows users to seek their "perfect match".

WHAT USERS SAY

"It is all about talking to mates and making new friends. It's nice to meet new people from different places. If you're careful it can be a lot of fun." Carmel Kulater, Thetford, 12

www.youtube.com

WHAT IT IS

A place where people can share and watch video and other audio-visual files for free, as well as interacting with each other via emails and other messages.

HOW IT WORKS

Users create an account including their password, email and profile. They can join and create video groups within the YouTube community and have the option of making videos public or private. The homepage has a safety tips link.

WHAT USERS SAY

"I go on a couple of times a week for an hour or so. You do get warnings about videos that have explicit content and can report it." Richard Power, 15, Portsmouth

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