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Internet safety shock for parents

PUBLISHED: 15:15 19 May 2008 | UPDATED: 20:25 05 July 2010

PARENTS in Suffolk have been warned to monitor children's internet use after a shocking new survey revealed half had met up with strangers they contacted online.

PARENTS in Suffolk have been warned to monitor children's internet use after a shocking new survey revealed half had met up with strangers they contacted online.

Police and child safety officials said parents would be “surprised” at the findings, made after 200 teenagers in Suffolk were questioned about the issue.

Half of those asked said they had met a stranger in person who they first met online - and 42pc of those had done so without an adult present.

The research also discovered girls as young as 12 were posting “overtly sexual” images of themselves on social networking websites, making them look a lot older than they were.

Detective Inspector Stuart McCallum, who runs one of Suffolk Constabulary's victim care centres, said: “It happens in Suffolk. People would be surprised at the frequency. Youngsters might go off and meet someone they expect to be the boy or girl of their dreams and it turns out to be an abuser.

“Images on the internet can be untruthful or manipulated. This is about increasing people's awareness and reluctantly acknowledging we may never stop it.”

The research, conducted by Suffolk-based charity Safechild, found:

?48pc of children had access to a computer in their bedroom.

?67pc admitted they had found something on the internet that had worried them.

?63pc said they had online friends they never met.

?50pc admitted meeting for real a stranger from the internet.

?42pc of those did not take an adult with them.

In almost half of the cases reported in the survey, the youngster involved admitted the person did not look like they thought, and there were also stories of their identities being used maliciously.

The warning was issued during the first Wise up to the Web conference, held at BT Adastral Park in Martlesham Heath on Saturday and spearheaded by Safechild.

And it comes just months after the high profile case of Suffolk paedophile Paul Etheridge, from Halesworth.

Etheridge, thought to be one of Britain's most prolific internet groomers, was jailed in March for nearly six years for a catalogue of sex offences.

He was caught with more than 200 images of girls aged 13 to 15 on his mobile phone. The 24-year-old had promised girls mobile top-up vouchers in exchange for indecent pictures of themselves.

Sgt Neil Boast, from Suffolk police's crime reduction unit, who has worked closely with Safechild on the issue, said: “When we looked at the sites the youngsters, particularly the girls, appeared overtly sexual in that they took their photographs in black and white. I am convinced a lot of the images had been enhanced. The girls did not look 12 and 13 they looked a lot older. That's a big worry.

“There are a lot of people out there claiming to be things they are not. My advice to parents is to try and get your children to involve you.

“Don't try and stop your children using the internet. It's a fantastic resource and all their homework is based around the internet and they have to research. But we need to engage with them in a dialogue so we know what they are doing.

“We will not put kids off social networking sites. It's not about frightening them it's about making them aware of meeting people online and wanting to take that relationship further.”

The research found some children were able to bypass internet blocking systems in schools.

Almost 80pc of the 10-to-13-year-olds interviewed said there was personal information on social networking sites that would enable them to find a person for real.

Peter Worobec, independent chair of the Suffolk Safeguarding Board, said: “It's a matter of getting the balance between the risks and the tremendous opportunities for young people.

“There is a big divide between children and parents and their knowledge of the internet and we have to fill that gap. It's more about educating them to manage the risk with their children.

“Parents need to understand what children are doing on the internet.”

Safechild, which works in collaboration with a host of agencies in the county to protect children, is set to launch a new website later this month providing resources for parents and professionals worried about the issue. The address will be www.safechild.co.uk.

Safety tips for parents and carers:

?Become familiar with social networking and user interactive sites. Most are easy to navigate and children are better protected when they communicate with their parents.

?Ask your child which social networking site they use and how they work. This enables you to understand your child's interests.

?Depending on the age of your child, consider the use of parental controls such as filters or monitoring software on which you can set the permissions to manage your child's access to social networking sites.

?Some social networking sites can be accessed through a mobile phone as well and so ask your child how they access the websites they use.

?Teach children the importance of registering their correct age to ensure the safety protection tools for those under 18 are applied to them.

?Make sure children are aware of the need to protect their privacy online and to think carefully about adding someone they have only met online to their “friends” list. Advise them not to share any information that could help locate them in the real world.

?Photos and videos should be appropriate - not sexually provocative or explicit - so as not to attract unwanted attention from adults.

?It is important children and young people choose carefully about what they share online with friends and the wider internet community as photos can easily be copied.

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