Angela Neustatter: Neglect your children and you'll find them in the chatroom

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You could almost hear the collective sigh of parental relief when Microsoft announced last week that it was closing its internet chatrooms. Encouraging, too, to see big business putting the safety of our children before their own interests.

That may be. But yet again the focus is on evil predators, whether on the net, lurking behind bushes or in the guise of the neighbour tempting our kids into a depraved embrace. Nothing to do with us and all to do with the aberrant, the external.

But actually it is to do with us. If we want to protect our children from those who will entice them, we need to get up close and personal. The quality of relationship we have with our children is likely to be more protective than internet patrols and prohibitions. But so often parents risk breaking the bond with their children by becoming over-anxious at the thought of cyber-friends. This encourages children to lie, or even leave home to maintain the contact.

Katie Jones, who runs the online chatroom business UKChat, is right when she says online chat is no more than a medium for conversation. So it is the message rather than the medium we need to address. But then we may have to face an uncomfortable home truth: that children not getting enough succour, stimulus and nurture from parents may turn to someone who appears to offer these things. The chatroom is today's adventure playground pleasure, where risk and intimacy are to be found.

This is not another attack on inadequate underclass parents. The parents who neglect their children are every bit as likely to inhabit the middle classes. All too often it means there is neither time nor will to be responsive to what is going on with their children. The workplace, where our physical time and mental space are gobbled up, leaves little opportunity for what was once referred to as languorous time with our kids - time when they can tell us their thoughts, feelings, anxieties and problems before they assume greater proportions. But there are more wilful ways we neglect children's emotional needs because what they say, and want, doesn't fit our plans.

In today's competitive climate, in which our children's success is also a parental badge of honour, their discordant words may be downright inconvenient. We don't want to know when they protest at being whisked off to myriad activities. I know because I was guilty of it. When my son was seven he had an after-school rota like a belle's dance card, full of music, tennis, drama and gym. One day he confronted me, arms akimbo, and asked: "Why do you want me to go to gym? I don't want to." The only answer was that I loved the idea of him being a little neo-Renaissance person I could discuss proudly with equally aspirational friends. He stopped gym.

We dismiss it as a phase when children say they are unhappy at our chosen school. Yet 16 kids a year kill themselves and thousands more suffer because they feel unprotected against bullying.

So to whom do these kids turn if their parents are not there for them? Who better than the person offering an ever-willing ear, who comes across as believing that what they have to say is important and valid? The cyber-friend is the perfect answer.

Isn't it ironic that anxiety over "stranger danger" means children are more isolated than ever from healthy contact with friends? They are taught to see the car as a place of safety when it maims more kids than predators do. At home they turn to television for a model of life, and to the net for friendship.

Never have our kids needed us to be there for them more, to help them confront a difficult world and to be a source of fun and nurture. With all that on offer, who would be tempted by a chatroom cyber-friend?

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