The Channel 10 investigation that caught men attempting to meet 13-year-old girls broadcast a few weeks ago, and reports of a major Internet pedophile ring uncovered in Germany last month, have highlighted the frightening aspects of the Web - as well as the extent to which fear boosts ratings.
"The Internet's connection to pedophilia has created a modern-day fairy tale whereby the Web is a Black Forest teeming with monsters," says Dr. Mike Dahan, who lectures on science, technology and society at Bar-Ilan University, and digital culture at Sapir College. "It's nothing new. Look back at the 1990s, at the Time magazine scandal, where they supposedly revealed that children are exposed to tremendous amounts of pornography online."
The article that provoked massive hysteria was based on research by a student at Carnegie Mellon University. It maintained that pornography was a mainstay of the content children found online.
"In retrospect, it became clear that the findings were exaggerated and fabricated," Dahan says. "Since then, the best way to make headlines has become to associate the Internet with pedophilia. It's voyeuristic, and it plays on the fear of technology and what it brings into our homes. Similar headlines were blasted on television in the 1970s and 1980s."
Dahan, a father of four, does not deny that potential sexual predators and people with questionable intents use the Internet. However, he stresses that the Internet apparently has not increased the number of sexually violent acts.
"Use of the Internet does not turn individuals into pedophiles," says Dahan. "One interesting study of pedophiles, conducted in Germany, found that only 20 percent used a computer, and only 6 percent actively used a computer to entice victims. In general, there is no proof to the claim that the Internet promotes pedophilia. To some extent, it even makes it easier to catch them, as we saw in Germany."
Despite that, Zvia Elgali, a safe browsing advisor at the Israel Internet Association, says that even if the Web did not increase the phenomenon of pedophilia, it did make it easier for predators to contact children, communicate among themselves, and hide behind false identities. Elgali says that at a recent workshop for children, she met an 8-year-old girl who is frequently home alone and chats with a variety of people on the ICQ chat program. "One of them presented himself as another girl. He sent her digital gifts - cute icons - and gave her a lot of attention and affection. He also asked her to switch their mode of communication to video chat," says Elgali.
Elgali contacted the girl's mother and suggested that the mother and daughter hook up the Web cam together. They discovered the girl's friend was actually a man.
"Now I'm very sad because no one sends me presents every day," the girl said.
But how can you keep children safe without provoking panic? Elgali says that the less time one spends with one's child, the more that child is exposed to risks.
"It is enough for a parent to take an interest in what the child does online - not in a threatening manner, but out of a desire to know. That alone helps the child stay on the better side of the Internet. There is no reason for children to surf the Web without an adult present - it's simply wrong. It's worth sitting with the child when he is first learning to browse, to play with him and work on the computer. That sends the message, 'This is something we can do together - I care about what you do there.' It is also always wise to keep the computer within the parent's range of vision, in the living room or next to the kitchen."
Windows Vista or Apple Mac OS X users may take advantage of built-in parental controls to monitor their children's browsing, choose the sites they can visit, and limit the time they spend online. Others may employ software like System Surveillance Pro, which logs every keystroke and can even send parents screenshots via e-mail of what their child is seeing. But Elgali firmly opposes such tactics. "I think it's terrible - completely 'Big Brother.' It violates the trust between parent and child."
Then, what should parents do?
"I would make an agreement with the child to tell me if he encounters a site that is shocking or not good for children. That works really well at younger ages. They do report to their parents, and parental approval is important to them."
In adolescence, the desire to please parents is less significant. "But if you have defined the principles of right and wrong from a young age, it will protect them when they surf to a forbidden site or speak with someone they shouldn't." Elgali is not opposed to Web filtering, but she advises parents to tell their children that they are being filtered and explain the reason, rather than to do so behind their backs.
All Internet service providers also sell parental controls. Many providers employ iKeeper technology under various labels, which filters content and facilitates limiting hours of use. "That produces good results," says Dahan. "The problem is that it also tends to block unrelated sites - such as most political content, extremist and moderate. You can't access information about breast cancer, and I imagine that a child who is interested in learning about sexual identity won't be able to access the appropriate pages."
Younger children can use Web browsers designed for them, like KidRocket and My Kids Browser, which employ a limited list of permitted sites. KidRocket's list is very minimal, and sites cannot be added under its latest version. My Kids Browser, however, allows for the addition of new sites.
Glubble, a plug-in for the Firefox browser, also provides a "white list" of permissible sites. It ensures that the results of Google and Yahoo searches are appropriate for children, and also allows children to send an adult a request for permission to use a specific link while surfing. The adult may permit the child to view an entire site or only the specific page requested.
But Elgali believes that parents should focus their efforts on preventive parenting. "You should discuss these matters ahead of time, rather than wait for a tragedy to happen. And the most important thing is to employ reason and not be afraid."
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