Virginia Tech Magazine
Feature -|- Fall 2006

Hot topic: Danger--children at play on the Internet
by Sherry Bithell

If you stumbled across this instant-message (IM) conversation, would you understand it?

Pwnxbox360: GTSY. SUP?
ashleez619: DIKU? JK!!
pwnxbox360: LOL! hey, want 2 MIRL?
ashleez619: 121?
pwnxbox360: sure. ASAP?
ashleez619: WFM.
ashleez619: wait, POS!!! BBIAB.
pwnxbox360: K. SYS …

The answer may depend on your familiarity with online chatting. For those who don't know standard IM acronyms, here's the translation:

Pwnxbox360: Good to see you. What's up?
ashleez619: Do I know you? Just kidding!!
pwnxbox360: Laughing out loud! Hey, want to meet in real life?
ashleez619: One to one?
pwnxbox360: Sure. As soon as possible?
ashleez619: Works for me.
ashleez619: Wait, parent over shoulder!!! Be back in a bit.
pwnxbox360: Okay. See you soon …

There are two possible interpretations of this fictitious e-chat. One is that two school friends are making plans online to meet later. There is the more frightening possibility, however, that the two e-chatters have met only in cyberspace--and that one of them is underage and the other is an adult.

A special Census study issued last October revealed that the Internet was used by 23.4 percent of children ages 3 to 5, 44.8 percent of children ages 6 to 9, and 68.9 percent of children ages 10 to 14. What dangers might these children be exposed to online? To find out, Virginia Tech Magazine consulted Professor of Communication Jim Weaver, who has extensively researched the topic.

Talkin' 'bout my generation

Weaver hypothesizes that children today are more susceptible to potential harm because of their comfort level with the Internet, which has been a staple throughout their young lives. "Anyone born after 1983 would have blossomed into adolescence as the Internet was gaining popularity in much of North America and Europe," Weaver explains. "As a result, children and young adults today have grown up with such digital technologies as Game Boy, the Walkman, the VCR, e-mail, and instant messaging punctuating every aspect of their lives. It is this group that has most likely developed the habits that draw them to the Internet."

Because of their comfort level with the Internet, children and young adults are more prone, and even encouraged, to give personal information to countless anonymous Internet "friends." Moreover, because today's youth are typically more familiar with the medium than their parents--the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use the Internet, compared to 67 percent of adults--children can easily stray into unsupervised, and dangerous, territory.

Recently, it was widely reported that children were visiting the popular social-networking site and circumventing its minimum member-age restriction of 14, not only joining the site but also lying about their ages and revealing personal information.

Although MySpace has assured parents that it has tightened security, the episode proved that children do venture into potentially harmful situations online--including exposure to pornography.

Shocking sites for young eyes

Last year, the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center surveyed 1,500 children ages 10 to 17 about their Internet experience during the previous year. Thirty-four percent reported having been exposed to pornography, 9 percent of whom were "very upset" by it. Additionally, 13 percent reported having received an unwanted request to engage in sexual activity or conversations with other children or adults.

For more than two decades, James B. Weaver III, professor in the Department of Communication, has actively researched the perceptual and behavior consequences of exposure to pornography. The author or co-author of 49 research articles, 22 book chapters, and two books, Weaver has previously testified before committees of the U.S. Congress on the adverse effects of pornography, most recently in January. He has taken leave this academic year to work as a research scientist in the Emory Center for AIDS Research, Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education, at Emory University in Atlanta.

"My biggest concern is the potential harmful effect that exposure to graphic sexual behaviors via the Internet can have on young people, particularly adolescents striving to understand human sexuality," says Weaver, who in January testified on this subject before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

"In a nutshell, research shows that pornography has become the de facto sex education for millions of American boys and girls," Weaver notes. "And unfortunately, the messages conveyed by these digital tutorials leave nothing to the imagination. Typically, they objectify women, encourage the exploitative--if not violent--treatment of women, and promote unsafe or risky sexual behaviors."

Equally disturbing, he adds, is the considerable evidence that some pornographers are targeting children as consumers. "Pornography webmasters stream volumes of sex videos free on the Internet without requiring any method of age verification," Weaver says. "The intent is obvious: Give free samples to attract customers regardless of their age."

Pornographers also engage in deceptive marketing techniques, such as using seemingly innocent URLs--for several years, was a porn site, Weaver recalls. He notes that another practice is to link pornographic sites to search terms that might seem innocuous. "A recent website survey found that searches of keywords such as 'sex education,' 'sexual health,' and 'sex advice for teens' yielded a preponderance of pornography Web pages."

It is difficult to gauge the effect of such marketing techniques but, as Weaver testified in the January Senate hearing, the pornography industry made $12.6 billion in 2005. Of that revenue, 20 percent, or $2.5 billion, was generated through the Internet.

Also during the January Senate hearing, James H. Burris, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, testified that the existing laws dealing with online child pornography were adequate, as they had already allowed the bureau to arrest thousands of predators. Paul Cambria, who represented several adult entertainment companies, noted that his clients were willing to work with Congress, including discussing a ratings system, but Weaver pointed out that voluntary regulation won't solve the problem of purveyors "who operate outside the rules."

So what is the answer? One option, says Weaver, is to employ existing U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of commercial speech to require the adult entertainment industry to verify a user's age before allowing site access. He also wants the federal government to recognize that "the adverse effects of pornography consumption for individuals, families, and our society present a burgeoning and, as yet, unaddressed public health crisis" because pornography glorifies sexually risky behaviors and rarely portrays sexual protection.

The parent trap

Ultimately, Weaver believes that parents must take responsibility for their children's Internet usage. Besides installing Web-filtering software--which is used by only 8 percent of U.S. parents, according to America Online--parents must learn enough about the medium to be aware of potential dangers and loopholes.

Weaver says that when raising their son in the digital age, he and his wife took the stance that the computer isn't a private space. "Many of us tend to think of the computer as 'ours'--it's where we read our e-mail, check our IMs, and organize our music library. Yet in reality, any computer on the Internet is more like a patio door that we frequently sling open to the world," he explains. "Repeat this mantra to yourself and your family: 'The computer is not a private space.' Parents must learn how to monitor their children's computer use and then follow up on their activities frequently."

Most importantly, it should be stipulated that a child cannot use the Internet unless a parent is monitoring the online activities, Weaver adds. "If you allow your child to convince you that the computer is their private space--like a diary or a journal, for example--and should be off limits to you, then you need to realize that you may be among the few people in town who are not reading that journal."

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