Are Internet chat rooms a new way for people to talk or a threat to our children? A play being premiered at the York Theatre Royal this month explores this debate, as CHRIS TITLEY reports.

THE first question you are likely to be asked when entering an Internet chat room is short and direct: asl? To the uninitiated it is nonsense, but once unscrambled it goes to the heart of online communication.

Asl stands for age, sex, location. And it allows the Internet user to change their identity with three quick lies.

Strangely that reinvention can make for utter honesty, allowing the chat room occupant to bare their soul with a freedom only granted to the anonymous. Yet it carries risks. Is that boy arguing about pop music with your 13-year-old daughter really only three years her elder, as he claims to be? Or is the age gap a more sinister 40 years?

The theme of online identity echoes through a play being premiered at York Theatre Royal at the end of the month. A/s/l? Age Sex Location by Richard Hurford could not be more topical. The dangers of chat rooms were recently highlighted by the former US marine who ran off with a 12-year-old girl following their Internet relationship, and then Microsoft's decision to pull the plug on its teenage chat rooms.

Director of a/s/l, Marcus Romer, said his theatre company Pilot had been working on the play for 18 months. The idea was to explore some of the issues emerging from the global talking shop.

"The pressure is, it's such a dangerous world out there, children don't play out on the streets, but it's okay if you're in your house, you're really safe," he said.

It is no surprise to him that so many people are regular chat room users. "We all have a need to connect. We all want to connect with people, join societies, play in football teams.

"If some of these things are taken away from young people, if 13 and 14 year olds aren't allowed to go out to these places, there's a virtual world where they can chat away."

Marcus has been into chat rooms, giving various answers to the asl question, and says it is a deeply personal experience. "You feel you are talking into someone's head. There's a very close connection.

"You're not having to watch and wait for any kind of body language that you'd get in a one-to-one situation. It's just about words. You can ask questions that would take you ages to ask in another situation."

Even though the person you are talking to could be thousands of miles away, they are right there with you. This idea is represented on stage by separating the two online conversationalists with a thin gauze curtain.

A/s/l tells the story of Livia, who blames her parents for the death of her older sister Jenny. Her body was found washed up on a beach some years before. When Livia goes online, she adopts the persona of Jenny and her chat room identity leads to further tragedy.

Children from many York schools will be going to see the play, and doing coursework around it, with resources available on Pilot Theatre's website.

Despite a/s/l's dark themes, Marcus is positive about the Internet and chat rooms. They are liberating, a chance to meet people from other cultures or exchange ideas with people who have similar passions.

But what about the possible dangers to children? If they are made aware of the potential problems, they can cope, he believes. "Everyone has the power to stop it. You can end the session with a click of a button."

Two of the younger cast members were once regular chat room devotees. Between the ages of 15 and 17, Andrew Falvey spent many hours talking online and felt there was an addictive quality to it. But he never felt threatened.

"It's not something to be feared. There are dangers, of course there are dangers, but the number of people who get into trouble is minimal."

Effie Woods, who plays the American girl, Carla, initially made the mistake of giving her own name in the chat room. She was bombarded with messages from boys, all asking the same thing: asl?

Nevertheless, she was not put off. Anyone who is concerned about chat rooms, or anxious as to what their kids are up to online, should take steps to learn more about this new world so it becomes less strange and worrying, she said.

Marcus agreed. "The answer is to control the technology yourself, don't let it control you."

a/s/l: age sex location is at York Theatre Royal from October 30 to November 15. Box office: (01904) 623568

Updated: 12:07 Tuesday, October 21, 2003