The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing in my home town yesterday: "Chatting On-Line: A Dangerous Proposition for Children." Six witnesses came to Kalamazoo, Michigan and described the perils of on-line chat to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and Rep. Charles Bass (R-New Hampshire). The most surprising and welcome news of the afternoon was that, despite the alarmist title, there was not a panicked call for additional legislation.
The hearing launched with Congressman Upton touting his internet record -- notably the .kids domain, now .kids.us. Personally, I like the idea of .kids.us, though some disagree.
The witnesses were Katie Tarbox, who in 1995, at age 13, had been inadequately briefed on the "rules of the net" and disasterously agreed to meet a child predator she'd chatted with online; two local law enforcement personnel, John Karraker and Jim Gregart; Ruben Rodriguez, the Director of the Exploited Child Unit for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; Caroline Curtin, the Director of Children's Policy for AOL; and Kathleen Tucker, the Director of Curriculum Development for I-Safe America.
Everyone was concerned about keeping children safe online. It goes without saying that this is a desirable goal, as long as it's done in accordance with the Constitution and doesn't interfere with everyone else's legal use of the internet.
The problem is a serious one. Real kids are being lured into dangerous relationships over the internet; charges were filed in one more case here in Kalamazoo County just last week.
The preferred pickup method for child molesters nowadays is the internet: chat, instant-messaging, and email. The old tricks of "would you like some candy?" and "your parents were in an accident, I'll drive you to the hospital" -- those are yesterday's news. Kids growing up now need to be aware of different dangers, ones involving formation of long-term relationships, questions about online identity, and trust.
I wasn't able to find any reliable statistics on how often children are victimized using the internet. The best numbers I found were from a phone survey of 1,501 children, ages 10 to 17, who used the internet regularly. Of them, 19% had "received an unwanted sexual solicitation" (imprecisely defined) but only 3% had been solicited with "attempts or requests for offline contact" or actual offline contact.
And precisely 0 of the 1,501 children said they had been sexually contacted or assaulted due to online solicitations. This seems significant to me, given that 21% of all children -- statistically, hundreds of the children in the phone survey -- are sexually abused (by some definition of the term) before age 18. Unfortunately, 0 is not a number that extrapolates well to estimate how many of the United States's 70 million children will be physically victimized with help from the internet. But if I understand the numbers, it seems the internet is not the most likely source of danger.
A study called JOVIS is in the works and should provide some concrete numbers. According to Mr. Rodriguez, we can expect data from it in four to five months.
In any case, the message our lawmakers heard yesterday was not that we need more laws.
All six witnesses said, using almost the same words, that there is no substitute for parental involvement. Three called for more money and training for law enforcement, to give existing laws teeth. It sounds like law enforcement, especially at the state and local level, is still coming up to speed on this issue. And Ms. Curtin, for AOL, emphasized that ISPs were already taking steps, and suggested patience to allow them to develop an industry standard.
The testimony and discussion was so removed from proposing new legislation, in fact, that Rep. Bass seemed a little bored and annoyed. He had to remind everyone twice that he and his colleague were lawmakers: "As a member of Congress, I would like to hear what recommendations you have for what we might do -- I haven't heard anything about that so far. ... If I could reiterate: we make policy. This is a very interesting problem, but precisely what suggestions would you have for us as policymakers? If you could draft the bill, what would it say?"
Proposals were hesitant. Our local prosecutor suggested mandated inclusion of a CD with every new computer sale, which would explain how to keep children safe online. I'm not sure why existing explanations (here's one) are insufficient; why not just link? And Kathleen Tucker of I-Safe suggested standardizing on "digital certificates," client-side certs issued by an authority which confirms your identity using proof ranging from photo ID up to DNA (!) -- thus allowing children to verify that screen name BritneyRulez333 does not actually belong to a 45-year-old man.
That excepted, Ms. Tucker's testimony was refreshingly sound. She squarely faced the problem of child predators, and quoted Judith Krug of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom: children "need to be taught the skills to cope in the virtual world just as they are taught skills to cope in the physical world."
Parents aren't there to watch over kids every minute. Just as they learn to cross the street without holding an adult's hand, so they need to learn how to wander the internet safely. "The value of empowering our children, through education," she concluded, "with the knowledge and critical-thinking skills that they need to be able to independently assess the every-day situations they will encounter while online cannot be overstressed... Education and empowerment are key."
In my opinion, that's exactly right.
But I wonder how effectively government will be able to help alleviate the problem. Knowledge is key, but kids are, as usual, embracing and understanding change, while bored Congressmen sit behind tables and listen to prepared speeches. Last week, I contacted three students, ages 14 to 17, and asked them about their experiences chatting online.
What they thought, and what they reported their friends thought, was pretty savvy. They understand the dangers, are well aware of the internet's advantages, and know how to stay safe. One student reported:
If kids know not to give out their personal information, and what could happen if they do, then there is really no danger. I would feel like I was missing out on a lot if I didn't have the opportunities to communicate online. It gives me a chance to stay in touch with my current friends, make new friends, meet interesting people, and find a group where I feel like I belong.
Another student reported:
I chat to other people almost every night, or whenever I get the chance to. I do not see chatting on-line as being dangerous, or otherwise harmful. Sure you always hear those stories about 12 year old girls chatting with 45 year old men, but I see online chatting as a way for people with similar interests to discuss and debate interesting topics. ...I strongly believe that if you chat online with people that you do not know personally, you should figure out what this person is really like, and if you can trust them or not.
Finally, I traded several emails with one girl who had chatted online extensively for years, and has met in person "at least 10 or so" other kids whom she first found on AOL -- including a meeting with some boys from another state.
This might seem like a recipe for disaster. But, not only was her protocol for establishing trust detailed and thorough -- paranoid even -- but she readily explained to me her reasoning for each step along the way. She's a poster child for "education and empowerment." And I doubt she's unique:
How did I know to be careful about creeps on the internet? It would be hard not to know nowadays. With an Oprah special about it practically every week, and news documentaries and polls, the facts are pretty much right out there for you. It's like taking candy from a stranger, it's common sense I guess... The types who would fall prey to an online creep would just as easily be a victim to a creep in real life... If the topic of internet chat comes up in school, teachers will almost always preach about safety and weirdos and such. So pretty much the topic of internet safety is inescapable -- it just depends on how well you listen to it.
I hope that's true for every young person.