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New sites on the World Wide Web are cropping up at an astounding pace. It's clear that the Web's colorful entanglement of words, pictures, sound, and motion is briskly becoming more than just the most important new communication medium since television. While the Internet is a wonderful tool, giving our children access to a world we couldn't have dreamt of a few years ago, it also poses many dangers, including people who roam chatrooms in search of innocent prey. Similarly, marketers and content creators collect personal data on children who are not capable of making up their minds as to what is appropriate.

What if Peter Squirrel goes on the Web and tries to forge relationships with kids? One can imagine kids telling cute cartoon characters anything they want to know - their name, address and telephone number. Also, online competitions promising the chance to win a valuable prize require that kids provide their name, age, address, and other data. Rampant buying and selling of information about children by direct marketers and information brokers is big business today. The concern is that parents don't know that the information given about their kids for one purpose can wind up in a computer database used for another. While many sites that cater for teenagers are innocent enough - with topics such as movies, music, hobbies, fashion, likes and dislikes - but the chatrooms on many of these sites mostly draw in discussions about sex. In many cases, child and teenage-porn images are posted on these sites. Research shows that an alarming 80% of the traffic on the Net is porn-related. For example, if your child innocently searches the Net for toys, typing in the word 'toy' will lead to a myriad children's toy sites - but what will also come up are sites such as adult toys stores, often with an invitation to visit its chatroom.

It is in these chatrooms that pedophiles make 'friends' with children. They make children trust them, confide their secrets in them, encourage them to be friends. They also often pose as children, sending fake photographs of a child as identification. Once a pedophile has befriended the vulnerable child, he may propose a meeting. It is vital that parents be alert to pedophile activity on the Net. But what can be done to ensure our children can safely surf the Net? No measure will be entirely successful unless a global agreement is reached on what exactly should be regulated on the Net.

It's no use when a person in Germany can legally post a picture on the Net that would be illegal in South Africa. The responsibility still lies with the parents to protect their child - not only from obscene material published on the Net, but also other harmful content that young people have ready access to. However, apart from balancing out the very real concerns about online porn, there is no evidence that it is any greater than the many other threats children face every day. Each month, children go missing, every day children are sexually abused - more often by family members and friends than strangers. While the Web provides special concerns, filtering software is no substitute for responsible, vigilant parenting.

How to protect your child: Place the computer in a central area of the home and make using the Internet a family activity. Don't allow your children to provide a user profile (their personal details) to any online service, including competitions and surveys. Children should never send a photograph of themselves to anyone, nor should they give out their real name or contact details. Make sure your children know never to arrange a meeting with anyone they meet online. Teach them not to respond to any sexually suggestive or threatening communication and encourage them to tell you about any messages that makes them uncomfortable. Moreover, try to keep your child out of chat rooms unless they are monitored. Retain the password for the master account if your account has multiple log-ons. This prevents your child from turning off the restrictions you have imposed. If you suspect your child is corresponding with a pedophile, call the police.