Augst 14, 1998

Safe Kids?

This was going to be a comment on Larry Magid's safe kids site but I took it more as an opportunity to write my own comments. You should take a look at this sites since Larry is one of the more sober and reasonable people addressing these issues. And there is a very strong need for reason in this arena. This is the note I sent to him.

It going to take a while for me to fully understand the sites. The information seems to be directed at those who care a lot about the issues. I think it would help to have more of a "sound-bite" overview of the key points for those with lexaphobia or simple impatience.

Before I present my own views, I realize that the whole notion of not assuming all knowledge is dangerous doesn't jibe with much of the thinking in this country. But I expect those who most fear knowledge and understanding would avoid this new medium anyway.

My two basic points are

  1. What's different about being online vs the traditional concerns.
  2. In the end, what is important is teaching children how to be citizens in this new world.
  3. Putting the risks in perspective.

(one day I'll learn to not say how many points before I finish making them)

The #3 is very similar to teaching judgment about situations. Of course, there's the school of xenophobia that equates strangers with threats and stops at that. I prefer to think about the challenge of teaching children how to judge what they see on TV, in particular, advertisements, as a similar kind of invasion.

What is different about being online is that the normal physical and social barriers are missing. One is being directly exposed to exposed to the wide world. A secondary consideration is the pervassiveness of pornography. I normally try to avoid the word pornography in favor of erotic or sexually-oriented but, perhaps due to the limitations of the medium, the point is to compete for being extreme.

The local cable TV doesn't provide access (or, at least, not during the day and not for free) of the most explicit sexual shows so I haven't had to deal with that and could take a laissez-faire attitude. If the kids are too young it's meaningless and it takes a while till they are old enough to seek it out and by then, hopefully, it is less special and they are inured. This means my first channel is commercials which provide a chance to emphasize not believing what one sees.

In this regard, perhaps, Jerry Springer is a public service by being so extreme and warped that one learns to view TV and, perhaps, by extension, movies, as an unreal freak show.

But this still leaves the online audience with the issues of spam and chat interaction -- neither of which I have had to deal personally. I'd like to see an email program that provides a parental filter option for younger kids - email from unknown addresses is passed for inspection and then parents can pass it on and add the address to an "acceptable" list. It should mark such mail as being parentally inspected in order to avoid the assumption of a lack of privacy as kids grow up. I worry that this need for privacy (at least by teens) is underappreciated.

That leaves the chat problem. But this is similar to the issue of not giving away information over the phone. So how does it differ from giving away information to another student or someone one meets socially? In some ways not at all given stalking and other threats in the physical world. Again, online is not that different. What is different is that it is much easier to present a false persona.

But, as when Seth first wanted to get online and spoke about how it pretend to be someone else, I suspect that most kids do view the chat rooms as wild play areas. The focus is then on those who seek out more than mild and, perhaps, prurient, entertainment. And here we need to move from fantasies, like the 80's assumption that a million kids a year disappeared into thin air (or sausage factories) was a major exaggeration. The missing/exploited issue has shifted the focus from paranoia to a more focused issue of recovery.

How do chat rooms differ from the personals in newspapers? Probably most on age and the need for physical proximity.

I was going to try to list some points that might be posterized, basically a reminder that given fantasy aspects and the lack of social clues one must treat the others very cautiously and not give out identifying information. But anything I'd say applies to all social situations. Never give out information over the phone in response to an ad and never put the names of any family members or their pictures on a web page and, well. that's the problem. Good judgment is generally lacking. Or is it. How many people have been victimized by all these possible threats. By all the strangers prowling online family photo albums for kids to capture and resell?

So, in the end, maybe the issues of chat rooms and email exchanges are a general one of being reasonable:

Don't be overly trusting anywhere. But don't avoid everyone either. Online it's much easier to pretend and many of those in chat rooms completely fabricate persona. That's part of the game. But some carry this fantasy too far and use it to exploit and victimize individuals.

The problem is that given a little information such as one's real name and the slightest additional information it's easy to find where someone lives so unless one is dealing with a completely dolt, you're location is not secret. And saying "Don't travel to South Carolina to meet a stranger" is not very general. The advice of asking parents is meaningless since if one is too young to have judgment and too young to know one doesn't have judgment it's hard to intervene.

Perhaps, in the end, the purpose of a site like this is to make parents feel they can look somewhere and know that someone is worrying about the issues so they can sleep at night.

My real worry is the insanity of those in Congress who are passing laws regulating the electric signals and requiring censorship if the schools don't block access to all sites using the letters s, e, and x in any order and context and to those teaching evolution and other disturbing ideas. Maybe you also need a safe schools site to provide a less intrusive alternative?


Just read a nice tirade on the V-Chip by Jon Katz. It echos my own feelings. The fundamental problem is that the new IP technologies are fundamentally indifferent to social policy. It's not like the old days when the broadcasters and the telephone companies defined the content. Rather than learning how to thrive in an information-rich world, the most fearful are the most vocal and Congress and others pander to them. It's just another face of the fear of democracy. Democracy is frightening but stasis is worse.