More and more Indian children - some as young as 10 - are making friends with complete strangers in cyberspace, known to be swarming with sexual predators.
These children, who are yet to step into their teens, are exploring cyberspace beyond the horizons of the Yahoo and MSN messengers - a familiar territory with their parents.
They are discovering newer hangouts in social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Hi5, Orkut, Fropper, BingBox... and even posting their pictures and personal details there.
Hunched over their PCs at home, with the chat window minimised, these kids spend at least an hour a day chatting while their unsuspecting parents think they are finishing their homework with a little help from education sites.
These children generally give very adult-like identities in cyberspace - babe_dirty_angel, coolgirlin, hotboy hot.aditi, dude_but2cute, lildudeit09, luvtotalkto, vasudha_sizzling, sakshi_paradise - and also compete with one another to keep the number of people they have befriended.
The reasons for chatting by these kids range from - "I find it's more interesting to know people from the world of chatting" to "I am just here to improve my typing speed".
The number of children hooked to these chat sites is alarming. A sub-community on Hi5 - currently the most popular hangout for Indian kids - has 904 members. It was started by students of a leading public school in Delhi.
When asked what sites kids usually like to hang out at, 10-year-old Aditya (name changed) listed fropper, yahoochat, Hi5, funmaza, blingybob, teenchat, myspace, bingbox, glittergraphics, myscene, www.58.rockyou and disneychannel.
"Kids also go to funnies.com for jokes and mouthshut from where they can copy book reviews," he chuckles.
The biggest danger is the possibility of predators targeting these children. The kids know they should not give out personal details, but it not very difficult to fool them.
Says Samara (name changed), an 11-year-old hooked to Hi5, "If any stranger tries to talk to me, I first check out his/her profile. If I think he/her is cool, I send a reply. Or, I just block the stranger."
When told it could be dangerous to talk to some strangers, Samara insists: "People usually tell the truth."
Some children give out each other's phone numbers for fun. "I know I am not supposed to give out my number and my address. So if someone insists, I usually give out my friend's number and then have a good laugh," says 11-year-old Arshia (name changed).
While chatting can be fun at these kids' sites, not many children prefer to waste their time there. "I can't go there and discuss Harry Potter," adds Arshia.
Samir Parikh, chief psychiatrist with Max Healthcare, says: "Kids are increasingly taking to chatting because they can express themselves freely online. The chat is uncensored and they can discuss any issue. They can even get abusive and get away with it."
Well-known psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh says: "It is a reflection of the marked decrease in the time that parents spend with children and the paucity of creative and constructive activities that kids are exposed to nowadays. Of course, it is a vicious circle fuelled by similar habits in the child's peer group."
It is not always safe for kids to chat, they say.
"It is extremely unsafe for kids. They are undertaking an activity they are unequipped for emotionally, psychologically or intellectually. They are liable to huge amounts of sexual exposure and abuse and also stunting of emotional, psychological and social skills," Chugh added.