There is a lot of controversy surrounding Internet use among children. A few years back,
a good friend of mine posted a picture of her eleven year old son on her website. Outrage ensued. Parents everywhere told horror stories about pedophiles using sophisticated tracking equipment to detect IP addresses. They would track her child down, and...
I listened, and I worried. My daughter was only six at the time, but she had 10 and 12 year old brothers who were fascinated by computers. Teachers sent home warning notices regarding Internet use. I believed what I was told.
Well, I don't anymore. The Intenet is a means of communication, and there isn't any way to keep children from using the Internet. Should they be supervised? Of course. Should they be worried about being hunted down? Not at all. Here are the findings of David Pogue from the NY Times:
How Dangerous Is the Internet for Children?
A few years ago, a parenting magazine asked me to write an article about the dangers that children face when they go online. As it turns out, I was the wrong author for the article they had in mind.
The editor was deeply disappointed by my initial draft. Its chief message was this: “Sure, there are dangers. But they’re hugely overhyped by the media. The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere. The Internet is just another facet of socialization for the new generation; as always, common sense and a level head are the best safeguards.”
My editor, however, was looking for something more sensational. He asked, for example, if I could dig up an opening anecdote about, say, an eight-year-old getting killed by a chat-room stalker. But after days of research—and yes, I actually looked at the Google results past the first page—I could not find a single example of a preteen getting abducted and murdered by an Internet predator.
So the editor sent me the contact information for several parents of young children with Internet horror stories, and suggested that I interview them. One woman, for example, told me that she became hysterical when her eight-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo. She told me that she literally dove for the computer, crashing over a chair, yanking out the power cord and then rushing her daughter outside.
You know what? I think that far more damage was done to that child by her mother’s reaction than by the dirty picture.
See, almost the same thing happened at our house. When my son was 7 years old, he was Googling “The Incredibles” on the computer that we keep in the kitchen. At some point, he pulled up a doctored picture of the Incredibles family, showing them naked.
“What…on… earth?” he said in surprise.
I walked over, saw what was going on, and closed the window. “Yeah, I know,” I told him. “Some people like pictures of naked people. The Internet is full of all kinds of things.” And life went on.
My thinking was this: a seven-year-old is so far from puberty, naked pictures don’t yet have any of the baggage that we adults associate with them. Sex has no meaning yet; the concept produces no emotional charge one way or another.
Today, not only is my son utterly unscarred by the event, I’m quite sure he has no memory of it whatsoever.
Now, I realize that not everybody shares my nonchalance. And again, it’s not hard to find scattered anecdotes about terrible things that happen online.
But if you live in terror of what the Internet will do to your children, I encourage you to watch this excellent hour long PBS “Frontline” documentary. (I learned about it in a recent column by Times media critic Virginia Heffernan).
It’s free, and it’s online in its entirety. The show surveys the current kids-online situation—thoroughly, open-mindedly and frankly.
The show carefully examines each danger of the Net. And as presented by the show, the sexual-predator thing is way, way overblown, just as I had suspected. Several interesting interview transcripts accompany the show online; the one with producer Rachel Dretzin goes like this:
“One of the biggest surprises in making this film was the discovery that the threat of online predators is misunderstood and overblown. The data shows that giving out personal information over the Internet makes absolutely no difference when it comes to a child’s vulnerability to predation.” (That one blew my mind, because every single Internet-safety Web site and pamphlet hammers repeatedly on this point: never, ever give out your personal information online.)
In any case, watch the show. You’ll learn that some fears are overplayed, others are underplayed, and above all, that the Internet plays a huge part in adolescence now. Pining for simpler times is a waste of time; like it or not, this particular genie is out of the bottle.