Editor's Viewpoint: Kids online: what parents must do
Does your child log onto social networking sites like Bebo, Facebook or MySpace? How often do they use those sites? Who are they talking to online? Those are the questions every parent of young or teenage children should be asking themselves.
Today's generation of youngsters are far more computer literate than the vast majority of parents. They use computers the way older people use telephones, hooking up with friends all around the country at the click of a mouse.
But social networking sites are vastly different to telephones. Those seeking to take advantage of vulnerable or trusting young people can easily infiltrate them. Paedophiles can use them to groom their victims. The appearance of a 32-year-old man in court in England accused of killing a 17-year-old girl he allegedly met through Facebook will send a shiver down many parents' backs. Unscrupulous users can easily disguise their true identity or age.
An investigation by Northern Ireland's two universities found that almost half of 10-11-year-olds questioned use social networking sites even though they are supposed to be open only to those aged 13 or older. Never mind the dangers they could face from adults, young people can also come under pressure from their peers on such sites. A worrying 13% said they had been bullied either online or by text.
While modern technology, used wisely and with supervision, can be an enormously useful educational and recreational tool, it can also be a channel for the deviant and the thuggish. With computers in virtually every home parents need to be more aware of the dangers children could unwittingly place themselves in. They should use parental controls to ensure children don't visit unsuitable websites and should keep computers where they are easily checked. They should also tell children not to give out personal details and to report anyone who tries to lead them into areas of discussion in which they feel uncomfortable.