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Protecting Kids On the Internet: Impossible?

Frank Ahrens

I'm not a parent but yesterday's discussion on the MySpace vs. parents of the child assaulted by a MySpace predator case brought up some fascinating points from a parenting vs. technology standpoint.

One person left this comment on the posting, which I found really got to the nub of the issue: "Realistically, what teenager 'needs' Internet access or a cellphone?? The answer, of course, would be none. Sure, one can always make the argument that there are cases where it's warranted, but those cases are not the norm for the whole of our society."

Think about this. The wonderful technological innovations of even the past decade -- high-speed Internet, nearly universal mobile phone service, texting and so on -- have brought the world closer in a way never before possible.

It is simply understood that these things are good. That we should have them because we can have them.

But is that correct?

I'm about the farthest thing from a Luddite I know. I routinely harangue my journalist friends and colleagues who only watch free, over-the-air TV and don't have cable or satellite.

But this may be different.

Internet predation has become a pervasive problem.

Cable companies and ISP providers sell us high-speed Internet service to our homes with commercials showing parents and kids looking at educational sites together (usually, it seems, video of a whale). But one wrong turn down the Internet's many dark alleys and the kids are seeing stuff they shouldn't. Scarier, the bad things of the Internet don't stay in the alleys anymore; they come looking for the kids where they play, such as on MySpace.

Parents have some options, such as filtering software and applications that let you watch on your computer what your kid is watching on their computer.

But is this the 21st-century equivalent of forbidding your 13-year-old from watching R-rated movies, only to find them watching these movies later at their friend's house on HBO?

How much can parents protect their children from increasingly pervasive technology and the many bad things that can come from it? How much should they protect them?

Are the MySpaces and Comcasts and Earthlinks of the world completely blameless? As a parent, is it even possible to completely protect your children in this era?

Discuss. Let me hear your stories.

By Frank Ahrens  |  February 16, 2007; 1:37 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
Previous: Judge: MySpace Guiltless In Child Assault | Next: Now starring on YouTube: Google


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Comments

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well said, frank.

some of yesterday's comments show that many Internet users still believe anything goes -- "don't tread on my ability to _____!"

the Internet is full of predators willing to exploit. unfortunately, the victims are all too often innocent, and all too often minors.

imagine the same predator visiting a playground, ice skating rink, or any other venue catering to minors. i bet someone will intervene by notifying law-enforcement.

were some of the yesterday's comments posted by predators? i hope not.

parenting has always been difficult. parenting becomes more difficult as children become teens. teens need and deserve more autonomy than their younger counter parts. parents cannot spend every minute of every day closely supervising their teens. teens revolt when closely supervised.

there are plenty of teens that are more tech-savy then their parents. online predators are one-step ahead of all of us. how are parents suppose to closely supervise their teens?

any business that generates profit by catering to minors should voluntarily implement reasonable and unintrusive barriers to law abiding citizen in order to protect their minor customers well-being. if these business cannot do it voluntarily, then it will likely be mandated by litigation.

there is no excuse for adults communicating with minors, unless you have been given permission to do so. you will not convince me otherwise.

we cannot stop crime all together, but we can surely prevent at least one person from becoming a victim.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 16, 2007 3:21 PM

Frank, I think a key assumption of your question is flawed: "Internet predation has become a pervasive problem."

How so? Yes, safety on the Internet is a concern that should be taught to every middle schooler (or earlier) in the country (as I do with my own kids). But to suggest that "predation" is "pervasive" is to buy into the hype and rhetoric of those who want to demonize the Internet for political gain.

There are easily millions (almost certainly tens of millions) of online communications every single day with and among children, and the vast vast majority of those communications are perfectly innocuous, and completely legal (although certainly some parents would understandably prefer that their kids get their homework done). The number of actual incidents of "predation" is a tiny fraction of the communications going. If you think that predation is "pervasive" on the Internet, then you also must think that dying in crashes is a pervasive problem inherent in airline travel. Yes, any airline death is tragic, but flying is still a very safe way to travel.

I do not mean to minimize the harm of even a single incidence of predation. Even one child who falls victim to a predator (whether online, in the school yard, or at home) is one too many. And schools and parents must take steps to educate their kids about using the Internet, and use voluntary filtering tools to protect them. As the response to the MySpace post yesterday made clear, the vast majority of parents agree that protecting their kids is their responsibility.

Posted by: John | February 16, 2007 3:23 PM

The "problem" that people face with the internet in terms of sexual predation and kids actually lies with a much deeper, more profound issue. Specifically, people have difficulty engaging in critical thinking. This affects everyone and goes well beyond sexual predation. It is why there are so many people who, having read something on the internet, take it as truth. Anything they find, they believe. This also explains why phishing emails and other email scams work -- people actually believe the emails.

The lack of critical thinking skills is not a new phenomenon; most people are pretty bad at it (witness most people's understanding of political issues and politicians). However, the internet amplifies the problem because it makes it so much easier for other people to deceive people. Moreover, people have a tendency to believe something more when it is written rather than spoken. Therefore, anything on the internet takes a greater power than if someone spoke the same thing aloud.

Ultimately, therefore, when people are taken advantage of (phishing scams, sexual predators claiming to be younger than they are and convincing young girls to meet them alone), it simply reveals how little critical thinking people employ when dealing with the internet. As young teenagers have even poorer critical thinking skills than adults, it is not surprising that they could become victims so easily.

Therefore, it is imperative that parents take a constantly active role in their kids' internet usage. It can't be just a one-time talk or use of filters. It has to be a constant, on-going discussion with them with constant warnings about how NOTHING can automatically be believed with the internet. Moreover, when a child violates rules with the internet, the parent has to punish the child severely. It can't be just a simply "don't do that again" warning, as so many useless parents do.

Posted by: Ryan | February 16, 2007 4:58 PM

The "problem" that people face with the internet in terms of sexual predation and kids actually lies with a much deeper, more profound issue. Specifically, people have difficulty engaging in critical thinking. This affects everyone and goes well beyond sexual predation. It is why there are so many people who, having read something on the internet, take it as truth. Anything they find, they believe. This also explains why phishing emails and other email scams work -- people actually believe the emails.

The lack of critical thinking skills is not a new phenomenon; most people are pretty bad at it (witness most people's understanding of political issues and politicians). However, the internet amplifies the problem because it makes it so much easier for other people to deceive people. Moreover, people have a tendency to believe something more when it is written rather than spoken. Therefore, anything on the internet takes a greater power than if someone spoke the same thing aloud.

Ultimately, therefore, when people are taken advantage of (phishing scams, sexual predators claiming to be younger than they are and convincing young girls to meet them alone), it simply reveals how little critical thinking people employ when dealing with the internet. As young teenagers have even poorer critical thinking skills than adults, it is not surprising that they could become victims so easily.

Therefore, it is imperative that parents take a constantly active role in their kids' internet usage. It can't be just a one-time talk or use of filters. It has to be a constant, on-going discussion with them with constant warnings about how NOTHING can automatically be believed with the internet. Moreover, when a child violates rules with the internet, the parent has to punish the child severely. It can't be just a simply "don't do that again" warning, as so many useless parents do.

Posted by: Ryan | February 16, 2007 5:01 PM

The answer is simple. Teach kids how to avoid getting in trouble. And treat them with RESPECT so they actually listen. (Hint, abstinence only sex ed is the quickest way to get your kids to tune you out.)

As for Myspace, it's clearly not their fault. They are an internet service provider. Politicians pandering to panicking parents should instead tell those parents to look in the mirror!

Posted by: drew | February 16, 2007 5:09 PM

The answer is simple. Teach kids how to avoid getting in trouble. And treat them with RESPECT so they actually listen. (Hint, abstinence only sex ed is the quickest way to get your kids to tune you out.)

As for Myspace, it's clearly not their fault. They are an internet service provider. Politicians pandering to panicking parents should instead tell those parents to look in the mirror!

Posted by: drew | February 16, 2007 5:10 PM

Parents need to remember that when they had their offspring that this is a long term deal.

You have to work WITH your kids from day one. First teach them how to cross the road safely, by being there to teach them. In later years teach them about how to surf the internet safely. Its all part of the ongoing skill set of parenting.

Communicate with your kids, answer their questions, engage them and stay involved in their lives from age zero to they send you to that retirement village.

Posted by: Paul | February 16, 2007 8:31 PM

Frank, looking at computer programs to solve the problem is foolish.

In the end, no amount of filtering will substitute for the sort of supervision you *should* be giving your kids - by being in the same room as them, or at least walking through frequently.

I fully support kids going online. Frankly, I think that it's a safer environment in many ways than the touted real-world.

But people who want to abdicate their responsibility for their kids, or who think that a few programs can do the job for them so they don't have to raise their kids? They shouldn't be near computers, definitely.

Posted by: Uly | February 17, 2007 4:36 PM

That silly to prevent website and cellphone. I am not surprise by your attitude although I think it is a bigger detriment not to embrace the technology. this Amish like attitude will not help. Pagers were prevalent when I was growing up and parents use them to keep track of their children. Cellphone are good in an emergency, and internet can open the world in a good way. We need to push legislation to restrict porn site to .xxx or another designation.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 20, 2007 4:16 PM

My 14 does not have a cell phone nor hang access the internet except for school projects because she doesn't need to. She gets off the bus and calls me when she gets in the house. I drop she and her friends off at the movies and the other parent picks up. If there is an emergency, she probably won't be able to talk/call me and her friends always have a phone so why does she need one.

Posted by: lwa | February 20, 2007 5:42 PM

Frank,
Do kids need cell phones and the Internet?

I think they do. And video games, too (though don't get me wrong - I am disgusted by the violent video games that are the typical fare these days.)

Why? Because to be successful adults, they'll need to have mastery of these technologies, and at some level, understand the cultural context and experience that goes along with them.

The Internet is fundamentally changing our world, and fundamentally imposing itself onto our lives and our kids' lives...and into the very fabric of our communities.

That means we need to STOP pretending that the Internet is some sacred science project. If we don't realize that an unfettered, uncontrolled, and uncontained Internet is no different than any other unfettered, uncontrolled, uncontained form of human behavior, we're in for a very dark time. Especially if we let our kids wander through that landscape unprotected.

So what's a "First Generation Internet Parent" to do? Many of yesterday's parenting measures no longer work. Most parents are not in tune with how their kids use the Internet, because it takes time and energy that are in short supply.

Here's the thing: To do this right (and we need to do it right!) will take the involvement of ALL the stakeholders. To my mind that includes:
1) The content providers
2) The technology providers
3) The ISPs
4) The local, state, and national government, including law enforcement and legislation
5) The community - civic organizations and community leaders, including parents

On this list, the parents are only ONE part of the solution, because we can't do it on our own.

Technology companies (like mine) have an obligation to help empower parents (and communities broadly) to protect their kids. (Full disclosure: Blue Coat makes K9 Web Protection, a content filter that is free for families.)

Content providers and hosters (whether MySpace, porn sites, or etc.) have an obligation to make their sites "controllable".

ISPs have an obligation to inform, educate, and support controls.

And yes, government has a role to play, just like government has a role to play in regulating alcohol, tobacco, and other activities that kids aren't ready for.

We all have to work together on this one. To truly have a shot at protecting our own kids, we have to work just as hard to protect our neighbors' kids. If that's not a community issue, I don't know what is.

Posted by: John Carosella | February 20, 2007 7:21 PM

I'm a fifty something parent, but you guys make me feel like I'm a youngster.

First, stop claiming you're befuddled by computers. PCs came out when most of us were in college, so you've had 40 years to prepare for this moment. If you haven't kept up, that's your fault.

Get online understand it. It's not magic.

More important, you realize you'll never really understand your kids. Your parents didn't understand you, and you won't understand your kids.

Yeah, you can take away the cell phone. Yeah, you can take away the internet. And TV. But what is your kid left with? What experiences will he/she have once they get out from under you? Are your kids veal that must be protected from the slightest bruise?

The reason kids don't want to talk about what's happening is because most parents are judgemental and immediate freak out at the slightest thing. You hear on Channel 4 about "online predators coming for your kids", and you think "OMFG, WHERE ARE THE POLICE! THEY'RE COMING FOR MY PRECIOUS 15 YEAR OLD!"

The truth is, when you were 15, your parents were letting you do a lot more stuff than you're allowing your kids to do.

I just think a lot of you are raising kids who will just make their mistakes on their own after they move out instead of making them while they live with you.

Kids want to be on myspace. Don't stop them, just find our their user ID and tell your kids you'll be monitor it. And don't be kooky about it. Check it 1-2 times a month. You'll get it.

But this idea that we must bring together a coalition of government, ISP's, Jesus, Buddha, and Billy Graham to come up with a plan to protect our children is a stupid overreaction. Plus the world shouldn't be dumbed down just to suit your idea of what an ideal life for a children should be.

And yes, I have two teenage kids. And my daughters think I'm strict, but you guys are just spooky. If you have kids who are 16 years old and you can't tell them a dirty joke yet because you get uncomfortable, you have real issues.

Posted by: Bunkley | February 20, 2007 10:47 PM

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