A scenario that all computer-wielding parents dread

Last week a man of 33 was jailed for luring a 13-year-old girl to his home for sex. Squalid though this is, such an offence is hardly unusual.

Except that the man, Patrick Green, became acquainted with his victim through an internet chat room. This is believed to be the first such prosecution in Britain. It's a scenario that all computer-wielding parents dread. As a mother of three, I've always been pretty curmudgeonly when it comes to allowing the children access to the internet. It's partly the phone bill; partly that, while they're online, no one else can ring in to or out of our house.

Except that the man, Patrick Green, became acquainted with his victim through an internet chat room. This is believed to be the first such prosecution in Britain. It's a scenario that all computer-wielding parents dread. As a mother of three, I've always been pretty curmudgeonly when it comes to allowing the children access to the internet. It's partly the phone bill; partly that, while they're online, no one else can ring in to or out of our house.

My principal cavil, though, is the sheer, footling pointlessness of their surf-life. We're constantly being told that the web is a marvellous educational aid, a cornucopia of information which could one day render print obsolete. But my nine- and 12-year-olds have used the net only once - once, between them! - for homework. And they're right: why bother to spend ages logging on and cranking up search engines, when my old Ladybird books and an ancient Encyclopaedia Britannica can be combed in seconds?

Instead of even pretending to look for anything educational, they surf for the kind of froth usually found in pre-teen comics. They like a number of girly sites which offer things like interactive make-overs - "Is blue eye-shadow for you?" - and, most days, the 12-year-old consults the modern-day Delphic oracle which is the Robbie Williams home page.

Their very favourite site is called "neopets", which apparently involves "interactively creating composite pets". And there was me thinking that that's what crayons were for. None of these are very edifying, but at least they do no real harm. Chat rooms, though, pose a number of risks. Patrick Green's victim evidently "met" him through a chat room called "Younger girls for older men". Last year, at a friend's house, my children went to the more equivocally named "Chat4Teens". Here they "met" someone who called himself Kevin. He said he was 14 years old, asked the girls where they lived and sent them a message: "I bet I'm the only person you ever saw who's got a nine-incher."

We were lucky. We found out what the children had been up to, so we were able to talk to them about the dangers inherent in the situation. But the chat-room encounter meant pushing back some boundaries. I hadn't been planning to tell my then eight-year-old daughter about paedophiles. "But Kevin is only 14!" she said. So I had to say that Kevin might not be 14 at all and that he might not even be called Kevin (I didn't add that he was probably exaggerating his penile statistics as well).

I had to say that he might not want their address to send them a friendly note; that he might not be friendly at all. In effect, I had to give three young children (the youngest, six) a lesson in cynical deceit and manipulation. I had to tell them stuff that I didn't want them to know. Because of an internet chat room, I was having to roll up their innocence and stash it away like an old sleeping bag.

Worse things happen, of course. And I entertain no illusions: children always have and always will be intrigued by anything to do with bottoms and willies. The current Robbie Williams single has him rapping: "Do I care for sodomy? I don't know - yeah, probably", which has occasioned an etymological inquiry from my older daughter. Again, explaining anal intercourse wasn't top of my list of things to discuss with the children.

But hearing a rude song (it was Jane Birkin's " Je t'aime - moi non plus" in my day, which meant finding a French dictionary) presents no direct threat to their safety. Neither does the time-honoured pre-teen tradition of scouring the parental bookshelves for dirty bits. The youthful combination of naïvety and prurience is only dangerous when it can be exploited by a third party; when, as in chat rooms, it can be made interactive.

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