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Young people can easily go on sites where they can connect with strangers — sometimes six or seven at one time.’Verity, 16, an A-level student from Cheshire, has been using My Space, MSN Messenger and online chat rooms to meet men for two years.
She admits it’s become a round-the-clock preoccupation as she’s constantly inundated with messages.
For Jonathan Baggaley, head of education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the biggest danger for young girls is the increasing use of webcams, which are now fitted to even the most basic computers.
He says: ‘For many young people, these days, their first sexual experience will be online.‘It’s now very easy for a flirty conversation over a dating website to be turned into a webcam conversation that can lead them to being persuaded to do more and more online.
To add to concerns, mobile ‘dating apps’ are being created which allow people to locate strangers in a specific geographical area for ‘hook-ups’.
The University of Plymouth study was published just days after an inquest earlier this year heard that bullied teenager Simone Grice, 15, of Illogan, Cornwall, killed herself by leaping off a motorway viaduct after trying to bolster her self-esteem by meeting older men online.
Like Becky, while she gets little attention from boys at school, in cyberspace there’s no shortage of admirers.
For six months, the 15-year-old had been chatting online to ‘Stuart’ after meeting him on an internet dating site.Like many parents, her family was unaware how she was spending her time online.Becky, who lives near Exeter with her widowed mother, a childminder, says: ‘We’d check into cheap hotels, or they’d drive me somewhere and we’d have sex in the car.Becky’s own descent into this terrifying world began at the age of 15, when her boyfriend, to whom she lost her virginity, dumped her and made cruel taunts about her size 16 figure.She took refuge in anonymous chat rooms, controlling her image with flattering photographs.