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Fewer children are becoming regular users of chat rooms, according to the interim results of a year-long study into young people's behaviour online.

The University of Lancashire's Cyberspace Research Unit found that the number of primary school children becoming regular chat users dipped last year compared with 2002.

The research also found that, overall, even more youngsters (nine out of ten, compared to eight in ten) were aware of basic online safety advice such as never giving out personal details when chatting online.

This is encouraging for those keen to ensure that young people stay safe when using the Net, but the research also highlights a worrying trend. For despite these improvements, experts are concerned that a hardcore group of chat room users are unaware, or simply ignore online safety advice.

What's more, an increasing proportion of these 8-11 year olds admitted to attending face-to-face meetings with people they've met online. In 2002 one in ten chat users admitted meeting people - last year it increased to one in four.

Said report author Rachel O'Connell: "Overall, there is an increase in knowledge of safety guidelines. Worryingly, there are still people unaware of the risks associated with chat.

And she warned: "The message is not getting through about meeting people."

Indeed, this idea of the message not getting through was a theme that was repeated throughout the day.

Ruth Hammond from BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) echoed the experiences of other speakers by saying that some children do take risks online.

But while she said that parents could do more to reinforce online safety messages, she also called on people to keep a sense of perspective.

Citing official figures, she said some 5,000 children under the age of 16 die or are seriously injured on Britain's roads each year. Yet in the past two or three years, there were fewer than 30 cases of children seriously sexually assaulted by a man they'd met in a chat room, she said.

"The biggest Internet danger is that we concentrate on the dangers and forget the benefits," she said.

Friday, Feb 6 was "European Safer Internet Day", with sixteen countries taking part in a day of action to defend "children's right to a safer Internet".

Elsewhere, in the US the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has announced that reports concerning the sexual exploitation of children are at an all-time high.

Over the past five years reports to its CyberTipline, a Web site - backed by Government agencies including the FBI - have increased 750 per cent. Last year, reports concerning illegal images of children, child prostitution and other crimes against children soared to 82,000.

Said NCMEC boss Ernie Allen: "This dramatic increase clearly demonstrates that child sexual exploitation is a major problem in the US and around the world.

"The rapid growth of sexually abusive images of children can be attributed to the ever-increasing number of users on the Internet, more affordable technology, and a federal law requiring ISPs to report all incidents of child pornography on their systems to the National Center." ®

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