I noticed last year that most of the people I encountered through my self defense class wanted to ask about methods to protect their children or grandchildren from the Internet. At first I thought they were concerned about shielding underage people from adult content, and I started to carry around info that I had downloaded which explained about blocking software like Netnanny.
It turns out that wasn’t what they wanted at all. News reports had started to appear that breathlessly hyped the dangers lying in wait for children that use the Internet as a social medium. Kids that set up a Livejournal account, so the talking heads said, were waving a red flag in front of a bull. And the bull in this case are pedophiles that obsessively surfed the ‘Net in search of their prey.
Reports of this nature have gotten pretty prevalent of late, maybe even routine. Most local law enforcement agencies, always sensitive to charges of lacking positive action, have set up little task forces to try and catch adults who search online for teen victims. The conclusion that any reasonable person would reach is that a child who visits the Internet is just a few mouse clicks away from being singled out for a kidnapping.
(As an aside, most of the websites look annoyingly similar because they got started from a grant from the US Department of Justice, and I suppose they just put up a modified version of DOJ’s template. The most interesting webpage of this variety I’ve come across is the one for Idaho, which also has a great deal of useful child-friendly links at the bottom. Kudos to Idaho!)
All of this sturm and drang reminds me very strongly of a telephone poll conducted by one of the major networks in the early 1960’s. The nation was alarmed at that time by reports of juvenile delinquency and rampant crime committed by unsupervised youth. News programs around the country would start with the announcer asking “It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your children are?” Some wag decided to actually call up a sample of their viewers and ask if they did, indeed, have any idea where their kids were.
The results were interesting. It seems that, in a majority of the calls, children would answer the phone. The problem was that the children were home, but they had no idea where their parents were at that hour.
Dangers to children, either sexual or violent in nature, have always existed. The Internet doesn’t present any problems that can’t be countered by strategies designed to work in the real world. The first lines of defense are keeping an eye on your children, interacting with them on a daily basis, and teaching them avoidance techniques if they think they have been targeted. (How many of my readers were told by their mothers to walk up to the front door of the closest house and ask for help if they notice a strange fellow giving them the eye on their way home from school?)
The interaction part is the most important. Unless an adult needs a computer for their job, there should only be one computer for the house. This computer should be in a common area so the child will be painfully aware that any questionable content appearing on the screen will be instantly visible to the rest of the family. If it seems that no one will have any privacy when using the computer, you are right. In fact, that is precisely the idea.
Children have always faced overwhelmingly greater risks from within their own families than from strangers which go a’hunting. This dirty, sordid, depressing fact is generally ignored by the news outlets in favor of sensationalism. The idea of a Chester the Molester lurking in the bushes with a trench coat and some duct tape will get people excited, mainly because they recognize Chester as a threat they can act upon. A story about a parent who starves and tortures their own children just gets some impotent headshaking before it is forgotten.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t potential dangers for children who surf the ‘Net, just that the situation has been grossly exaggerated. We can separate the hype from the peril, and reduce the chance of harm, if we all just keep our heads.