Is It Safe? Kids and the New Internet

zellChristian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Yes, it’s safe, it’s very safe, it’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: No. It’s not safe, it’s… very dangerous, be careful.

-Marathon Man (1976)

One of the most effective and creepiest scenes in movie history is the one in Marathon Man in which Laurence Olivier asks Dustin Hoffman that question over and over. Parents ask themselves that question all the time to- about their kids and the internet.

The MySpace Problem

One of the most popular internet sites for young people is, of course, MySpace. For those few who don’t know what MySpace is, you can be sure your teenaged kids know all about it. Here’s the FAQ, but the very short answer is that MySpace is a hugely popular social networking site where users can share photos, journals and interests with their network of friends.

The problem, of course, is that kids often don’t realize the risks of putting too much information about themselves on the internet and the information they put on the internet can be accessed by just about anyone. Friend and predator alike.

The sad reality is that the thing that makes these sites so popular, the prospect of sharing information and making new friends, is the thing that makes them so risky for kids.

MySpace, which was purchased by News Corp, has announced that it is taking measures to make the site safer for teens. Among those measures are the deletion of 200,000 “objectionable” user profiles. The objectionable profiles contained primarily “hate speech” and material gently described by Ross Levinsohn, head of News Corp’s internet division, as “too risque.” Too risque, right. Sadly, our culture blew right past risque in the 70’s.

It’s Really an Internet Problem

Mr. Levinsohn made a good point, however, in the Financial Times article linked above when he said about objectionable content:

It’s a problem that’s endemic to the internet – not just MySpace.

Absolutely, that’s the case. Every parent I talk to struggles with a family internet policy that allows kids to use the internet for its many good uses while avoiding its many bad uses. My kids haven’t locked onto computers and the internet yet, but I have run into problems merely by allowing one of my kids to do a Google image search for cats or bunnies. When my kids start clamoring to use the internet, you can be sure I will have redundant filters and site blockers in place. Not because I think they’ll try to find the bad stuff, but because you can’t help but find the bad stuff because there’s so much of it.

Thank Goodness We Didn’t Have the Internet

Don’t get me wrong, had there been an internet when I was a kid, I would have gone to great measures to find exactly the sort of thing I now want to keep my kids away from. My friends and I collected quite a collection of impermissible contraband back in the day. But what was shocking in the 60’s and early 70’s is on primetime television now (which is why we watch exactly none of it in my house pre-bedtime). The indisputable fact is that there is a ton of stuff on the internet that most right thinking parents find totally unsuitable for their kids. All of this during a time when the internet is as much a part of most teenagers’ lives as the telephone was to ours. And all of this during a time when the internet is all about “social interaction.”

Is There a Solution?

What to do?

First, I believe we have to stop talking about teenagers as if they were in one group for internet purposes. There are many things that an 17, 18 or 19 year old can probably handle that should be completely off limits to a 13 or 14 year old. Nor, candidly, should we encourage 13 to 19 year olds to interact on the internet as social equals.

Additionally, kids learn a lot of stuff a lot faster today than we did back in the 60’s. An 11 or 12 year old today is easily as sophtisticated as a 13-14 year old was back then. The fact that there’s not a teen at the end of his or her age is not a compelling reason why he or she can’t do something like use the internet or chat with a friend.

We need to decide what sites are OK for young children and which sites are not. There must be more than just a single division of web sites. To apply a 19 year old standard to a 13 year old is to ignore the problem, if not promote it. Likewise, to apply a 13 year old standard to a 19 year old is a recipe for non-cooperation and avoidance.

So why aren’t these social networking sites being more proactive about this?

The crossroads comes, as it always does, at the intersection of money and morals.

Sadly, sin sells, both in the real world and the internet. Primetime television, music videos, even cartoons. For a company to do the right thing and prohibit marginal activities is to invite another operator to take that space. It’s an unworkable situation that can only result in a potentially dangerous environment mitigated only by half-hearted measures and lip service.

Which is what this latest MySpace clean-up looks like to me.

Even in Second Life, which I have written about favorably, these issues are a significant problem. Second Life attempts to deal with the “sin” issue by creating a mature filter which if applied is designed to keep users away from the most extreme (read highly sexual) content. I suppose it works a little, but a stroll through the “PG” rated portions of Second Life demonstrates conclusively that there is a very mature element at work. Dance clubs with sexy names and logos, casinos on every corner. Fine for adults, not OK for kids.

Not to mention that you have no way to know that the person who looks like and claims to be a similar-aged kid may in fact be an old man. That is reason enough to keep youngsters away, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.

MySpace, Mayberry Style

All of this leads me to two conclusions.

First, my kids won’t be allowed to use MySpace and its ilk, at least until they are in their late teens. Same for Second Life. They may not like it, but I don’t let them wander around any strange place by themselves. Not in first life and not in second.

Second, the social interaction space is screaming for a family-oriented social networking site. MySpace, Mayberry style. Second Life with the Cleavers. Such a site would be welcomed by parents all over the world. I’d write about it weekly.

It would have to be developed by the right person or persons. Not an organization with an agenda to promote. But by a non-denominational organization that wanted to create a safe place for kids and make a little money too. Not greater fool money, but corner market money.

My internet utopia would have 3 age-based zones, each separate and independent from the others. 10-13, 14-16 and 17-19. New users would have to be verified in some meaningful manner by their parents. Parents would also be verified and would serve as volunteer safety officers- with the ability to report violations and to exclude their own kids from activities, but not the ability to interact directly in the virtual community.

Perhaps there would be a way to create private invitation-only sub-communiti
es. I’d gladly set something like that up for my kids and their friends. Then I and the other parents could police it to keep order and make sure there are no interlopers.

Maybe something like that exists, but I’ve never heard of it.

As our kids get older and the internet gets more ingrained in our lives, it will become important to develop a family internet policy that allows our kids to enjoy the wonder of the internet while protecting them from it’s darker side.

I hope someone will be up to the challenge. I’ll certainly help any way I can.