Chatrooms will increase child attacks, say experts

Children who log on to chatrooms could be the unwitting prey of sophisticated paedophiles

Child psychologists have warned that Internet chatrooms will increase the number of attacks on children in the UK.

Experts agree that increasing use of chatrooms in the UK is creating myriad opportunities for paedophiles to operate in relative safety online, eventually luring children into meeting them offline. Psychologists argue that chatrooms provide predatory offenders with a convenient sample of children that they can cherry pick at will.

The claims are backed up by research from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. It shows that one in every five children using the Internet has been the victim of a sexual approach or solicitation online. Sixty-five percent of these approaches were initiated in chatrooms.

Alex Hossack, consultant clinical psychologist at Mersey Forensic Psychology Service is confident that the traditional "grooming" process -- the process paedophiles employ to gain a chid's trust -- can be easily replicated online.

"There won't be the same physical contact, but once a contact is made the sexual language will begin and there is the danger that the child will be introduced to pornographic images. These sexual images will be shocking and could traumatise and 'sexualise' a child," says Hossack. He describes sexualisation as a long term and traumatic emotional condition. The trauma manifests years after the assault and propagates itself cyclically, he says.

Eighty percent of sexual offenders were themselves abused as children.

Matthew Saxton, lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, argues that children are not mentally equipped to interpret manipulative conversations with paedophiles on the Internet. "There is a well known gap in a child's knowledge that well outstrips their experience. Unprotected chatrooms provide access to all kinds of disturbing and inappropriate information, presented in a context that parents cannot control."

Internet giant Yahoo! was found by ZDNet UK News to be offering adult-rated chat on the main screen of its instant chat service, Messenger. The service allows paedophiles to setup chatrooms specifically to lure young children into abusive conversations.

Last month paedophile Patrick Green was sentenced to five years imprisonment for raping a 13 year old girl in the first British case of its kind. Green used a Yahoo! chatroom to lure his victim.

Yahoo! has stated that it will only remove content if it breaks local law despite calls from children's charities such as Childwatch and NCH Action for Children for the service to be more responsible with its chatroom facility.

The company has repeatedly refused to answer whether it is appropriate for the world's leading Internet chat service (which purports to serve the "family") to have paedophile content available to hundreds of thousands of children who use the service daily.

Yahoo! is the only messaging service of the big three (AOL, Yahoo! and MSN) that allows unmoderated chat.

Saxton says Yahoo! needs to look beyond the law and take responsibility for content on its service that is made available to children.

Yahoo! would not respond to Saxton's comments.

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