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A government crime agency will investigate the effects of social networking sites on children in an attempt to better understand the new phenomenon.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, a wing of the newly formed Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), will ask children, parents, teachers and industry figures to a series of meetings later this month to help the agency to formulate policies to combat child abuse via social networking sites.

"This is an opportunity for everyone, especially young people, to get involved, share their experiences and to help CEOP understand the issues," CEOP chief executive Jim Gamble said. "That way we are not only gaining a greater understanding of this environment but also how we make it safer by design for all young people to use."

The move follows several high-profile incidents relating to popular sites MySpace and Bebo. A woman in Texas has filed a law suit against MySpace after her 14-year-old daughter was assaulted by a man she was first in contact with on the site. Two teenage girls in the US were found to have used MySpace to publish death threats against a fellow school pupil, while two other girls robbed a man at gunpoint after they pretended to be an older woman and lured him to a flat.

Gamble said the dangers were very real. "A survey by the London School of Economics shows that one in 12 children have met someone offline who they initially encountered in an online environment," he said.

"Social networking sites provide great opportunities for young people to meet and share experiences, but with this freedom comes a degree of risk and the need to act responsibly. We know that where children go online, so do those who seek to abuse them."

CEOP was formed in April and brings together police, specialists from charities and figures from industry to help combat child abuse.

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