Leading article: Unravelling the secrets of the net


What makes a child happy? The answers that nearly a thousand children came up with in a recent poll for the Children's Society were simple. Good friends, good parents, a loving family and "having fun" were the most important aspects of a happy childhood. In other words, relationships, not things, are what count. This paper has done its best to help children have what they want and need - or rather, we have sought to persuade adults to take those needs properly into account.

Children need the time and attention of the adults they love: this newspaper's Sunday Lunch Campaign is intended to encourage families to spend time together on one day of the week, at least, talking and eating - the most fundamental ways of communicating. We have reminded ourselves that summer vacations are an opportunity for parents to spend time with children, not a tiresome distraction from our main preoccupations. And we have campaigned against the stigmatisation of the so-called Asbo generation, not least because lazy stereotypes aggravate the very problems they seek to identify.

Our report today on the dangers that contemporary technology, specifically the internet, poses to children is a part of that attempt to ensure that children have what the Archbishop of Canterbury recently referred to, in these pages, as "the protected space in which children can be children". Our findings are alarming. The internet has enormously expanded paedophiles' opportunities for abuse. Whereas once it could have taken a would-be child-molester a couple of years to win a child's trust and gain the confidence of his or her parents to the point where abuse could take place, chatrooms now allow instant access, on an entirely anonymous basis. The FBI has estimated that worldwide, there are 50,000 paedophiles online at any one time. That grim statistic was given a human face last week, when a mother in Kent revealed that her 14-year-old daughter was targeted by Mark Bedford, a Canadian facing charges of abusing more than 100 children worldwide, just hours after the girl bought a webcam to communicate with her friends.

To point this out is not to condemn the technology itself. Our lives have been enriched by the internet. It allows for unprecedented ease of communication and access to information. Children are far more at home than their parents with contemporary technology. While this is a good thing, it can also widen the space between generations. If a child is texting friends or online visiting chatrooms, there may be less opportunity for face-to-face exchanges with those under the same roof. It is also exceptionally hard for a parent to supervise these activities. Indeed, many children take good care that adults do not know what they are doing online or on mobiles: as we report today, 63 per cent of teenage internet users try to hide their activities from parents.

So, what's to be done? Part of the answer is to empower the children themselves to deal with the problem. It is welcome news that schools are introducing "e-safety lessons" as part of the national curriculum. International monitoring of the industries involved is another priority: as we report today, police and webcam manufacturers are discussing ways of tightening security. But however useful the work of police, schools and manufacturers, it is no substitute for nurturing parents. If children at home can feel comfortable routinely chatting about their activities, it is more likely that parents will be alerted to the dangers that children encounter online. As the ad for an almost old-fashioned means of communication - telephones - used to put it, it's good to talk.

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