British Web chat doubles

Almost a million Britons have used Internet chat rooms, and 50,000 children say they regularly chat on the Web - but are they safe?

Britain's uptake of online chat has doubled in the last twelve months according to new research from Internet research company NetValue, despite increasing publicity surrounding the dangers posed to children by Internet chatrooms.

The study published on Thursday finds more than 900,000 British home users have chatted online -- double the 487,000 surfers who had used Internet chatrooms in February 2000.

A government-backed Internet Crime Forum (ICF) report released on Tuesday found an estimated 4.8 million children to now be online in the UK, of whom over one million are under 14. NetValue reports that 51,500 children under the age of 14 are regularly chatting on the Web.

"The figures show us the scale of the problem that we face -- it's a growing interest and not a minority thing," said Nigel Williams, director of Childnet International. "The whole chat environment is one that appeals especially to the 11 to 15-year-old group."

Referring to research conducted in Canada, Williams noted that children within this age bracket think about the Internet in a different way to older children. "They feel it is their private world that their parents don't understand. They don't hear about the risks, and the warnings don't impact them in quite the same way."

Risk assessment studies have found teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 17 to be the most likely targets of online enticement by Internet paedophiles. There is a general trend towards girls using the Net primarily as a communication tool whereas boys appear to view it more as an information source.

"The issue is finding a better way of communicating the dangers to children -- it's a real challenge because of the way in which children perceive the chatroom environment and their willingness to try new things," said Williams.

The NetValue study concluded that among European countries Web-based chat is most popular in Spain -- more than one in four Spanish Internet users chatted online in February. The UK online population are keener users of chat than their counterparts in Germany and Denmark, but lag behind Norway and France.

What are the risks of paedophiles approaching my children through Yahoo! Messenger chatrooms? Find out the details of ZDNet News' investigation in the Chatroom Danger Special Report

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