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  • Apron Strings

    Posted by James R. Rummel on May 28th, 2006 (All posts by )

    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.

     

    8 Responses to “Apron Strings”

    1. michael Says:

      Seems to me this handles the issue. It’s free and far and away more sensible than Netnanny-ish filters.

      p.s. Thumbs up on the new captcha format.

    2. Ginny Says:

      Your common sense observation that more problems arise within the home than without is good. Nonetheless, a couple of decades ago these facts were hijacked. The truth is children are much more likely to be abandoned, abused or molested by characters who are “like” but not biological figures – that is, by stepmothers & stepfathers, live-in-boyfriends. These figures (and others) assume traditional familial roles but in some ways see the child as a threat to or outside the protection of familial relationships. (This is probably more unconscious than conscious.) And of course a big percentage of the child abductions are custody battles.

      Just throwing this out because for a while there was a brisk market in books about incest and the danger of fathers. This was particlarly popular in the artsy, feminist aesthetic and resulted in such award-winning books as 1000 Acres. (Which I sent to my siblings because I thought it was neat in the way it discussed farming in Iowa; I hadn’t finished it. When I did, I thought, my God, why did I think they’d enjoy this.)

    3. Steven Den Beste Says:

      One of my readers one time referred to news reporters as “anxiety pimps”. It has to be remembered that reporters are basically selling their stories, to editors, and to readers, and they have no job if no one reads what they write. So they have to come up with something that people will read.

      Of course, that can simply mean writing things that readers want to read, but it’s easier to come up with things that readers fear to not read. Which is why one standard template for a news “story” is “your children will die a horrible death unless you read our article…”

      This has been going on for a long time. Internet predators are the latest bogeymen being pimped this way. Not, as James says, that there are no such things, but it’s clear that there are far fewer of them, and that they represent much less of a danger, than many think.

    4. Lex Says:

      As a parent I am in general agreement with what James says. I would nonetheless like to make it easier to filter out pornographic content, and if that required some “time, place and manner” regulation, fine. I see no genuine threat to the 1st Amendment. While I don’t want me kids to run across it, I don’t want to run across it either. I also agree that talking to your kids and listening to them and telling them in an age-appropriate way about the hazards of the world is the way to go. Chester the Molester in the bushes is a remote risk, but he does exist. I have run across such persons in my professional work. Thank God there are few of them and they can usually be avoided by exercising common sense, and training your kids to have common sense. Finally, I think that a lot of people want to worry about remote risks because it is a way of distracting themselves from the problems that are more immediate that they don’t want to deal with. I like Gavin de Becker’s two books the Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift. He struck me as a person with common sense.

    5. Lenny Says:

      “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.”

      You are correct that this is one of the most important things that can be done. Quite frankly it takes some “intestinal fortitude” to make this rule and stick to it because it’s not the popular thing to do. It’s amazing to me to see how many kids have internet-connected computers (along with TVs and DVD players) in their bedrooms.

      Of course the “public” computer has an effect on everyone in the family – including good old Dad who has to think twice about his own questionable urges – but that’s the whole point.

    6. A. Scott Crawford Says:

      James,

      The best advice you could offer those parents and grandparents in your self-defense class regarding how they might better protect their children from being exposed to internet porn is to spend fewer hours taking self-defense classes in order to spend more hours taking computer courses. Both Windows and Mac operating systems can easily be configured by computer literate adults to limit what kind of things their children can do or see or be exposed to via the machine or internet. The problem is that while this is easily done, it is a time consuming task, especially as most children are more computer literate than their parents and quickly figure out how to circumvent the various controls.

      Allow me to play the cynic for a moment. When Tipper Gore led the push to force record companies to label music that had curse words and such (obviously forgetting WHY “Louie Louie” was such a giant hit), the result was the exact opposite of what the “protect Our children” crowd intended. Kids being kids, there’s few things more alluring than a “parental warning” or “adult content” lablel on a record or movie. Can any readers honestly say they NEVER snuck into an “R” rated movie? Or snuck a couple of beers out of the cooler when their folks weren’t looking? Probably not.

      What happened was that record companies discovered that adolescents are suckers who are so pathetically eager to seem “cool” that they’ll shell out hoards of cash for anything their parents don’t want them to see. Thinking, as young people have since the dawn of time, that there’s a grand adult conspiracy against kids having fun… when in fact, the only conspiracy is that adults don’t want to have to admit they themselves either have vices or are woefully ignorant. Now ALL the big “stars” are vulgar buffoons and louts across the whole of the entertainment industry… because being a foul mouthed jerk sells product. It sells rap and rock and pop records. It sells movie tickets and disks. It sells books and magazines and newspapers. And because being crass (which is all profanity is) is chic and cool, those stupid labels are a quick and easy way for some dumb kid to buy social status. (Didn’t anyone ever tell Tipper Gore what “Rock and Roll” was a slang term for..???).

      As for the child molesters trolling the internet, a couple of things should be fairly obvious. First, if someone is a convicted sex offender, they have to register as such where they live. Second, it is not a crime for even convicted perverts to flirt with people they think are children on the internet (half of whom are no doubt FBI agents or State cops). Third, the more child molesters sitting at computers trolling teen chat rooms, the fewer there are actively out in their cars picking up teen prostitutes or runaways on the streets. Fourth, a teenager who is old enough to set up a date with some random pervert on the internet and then find the means to go meet them is mature enough to get into trouble whether they’re computer literate or not. Fifth, journalists produce lurid child sex stories because those stories sell, and merely use the “scare” tactic angle to cover up the fact that the journalists themselves are ALSO exploiting those children by making money under the guise of public service. Six, then there’s “law enforcement”….

      Continued..

    7. James R. Rummel Says:

      The best advice you could offer those parents and grandparents in your self-defense class regarding how they might better protect their children from being exposed to internet porn is to spend fewer hours taking self-defense classes in order to spend more hours taking computer courses.

      If you could read the second paragraph of my post again, I think you’ll see that my students aren’t particularly worried about adult content. Instead they are concerned about physical threats that might come from a minor using the Internet.

      James

    8. Ken Says:

      “If you could read the second paragraph of my post again, I think you’ll see that my students aren’t particularly worried about adult content. Instead they are concerned about physical threats that might come from a minor using the Internet.”

      Seems reasonable to me. Pornographic images aren’t going to jump out at them. Predators, on the other hand, can actually threaten them if they do something stupid like going to meet or inviting over someone they think they know from the Internet.