Sonia Livingstone: The net is riskier than anywhere else kids play

An expert on children and the net explains the dangers

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Social networking is huge, and a fantastic opportunity for young people to meet people they would never normally encounter. It is revolutionising childhood and adolescence by making young people more sociable, broadening their minds and even making them more politically aware.

The amount of time children spend online is unprecedented. But the risk is in them giving out personal details that can be used to take advantage of them.

Adults are way ahead of kids when it comes to the internet's perils. Children know about the dangers of fast cars and about the weirdo down the road, but my research shows they do not have a concept of the wider world.

And it makes no difference telling them that an indecent photo of them that turns up on the web when they are 25 could ruin their career and relationship. Children have very little concept of the future.

Kitemarks would help parents of younger children, but unapproved sites may end up becoming even more hip and cool with older teens, which may defeat the purpose.

Companies could do more to police sites and some are irresponsible, especially as they are making a lot of money while knowing that young people need more protection.

The way to get the message across to young children is to use magazines and problem pages. Kids take advice on board when they see real-life situations. We could be a lot more creative with our warnings.

A lot more could be done about how sites are designed and many awareness campaigns could be better targeted to include parents.

I do think we are being a bit hysterical about these sites and it's unfair to ban them, which they tried to do with chatrooms. It's like telling children "no ball games" or blaming them for wearing hoodies and congregating on street corners. It's not their fault that they're young.

But the reality is that the risk online is far greater than any other place they play.We have to get advice out there so children can enjoy cyberspace while being aware of its dangers.

Professor Sonia Livingstone is head of social psychology at the London School of Economics and was speaking to Sophie Goodchild

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