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In 1987 the Sierra On-Line company launched the game "Leisure Suit Larry" - one of the first products that brought sex to the personal computer. At the center of the game, referred to as Sex Quest among Israeli youth, was the comic character of a frustrated bachelor, whom the player had to lead through bars and luxury hotels so he could slip into the beds of attractive women. If he succeeded, the couple would disappear behind a large black rectangle, covered with the word "Censored."

Despite its basic graphics, which left a lot to the imagination, even back then, U.S. organizations focused on family values protested against the game's harmful effect on children.

The Sierra company, for its part, took measures to make it more difficult for children to enter the game, by means of a short series of questions it assumed only adults could answer.

But every child familiar with the game knew there was an easy way to overcome the obstacle: All you had to do was press the X and Alt buttons on the keyboard at the right moment. "Leisure Suit Larry" was the first round in the lost war to keep children away from sexual contents on the computer.

Back then, some 20 years ago, few people could fathom the major role the Internet plays today in the process of sexual maturation.

Nowadays, children's exposure to pornography on the Internet is a reality that cannot be denied and it is doubtful whether this reality can be changed.

The massive increase in exposure to porn has led American researchers to dub today's youth "the XXX generation."

The question is whether pornography is really as harmful as people make it out to be and whether the efforts to contain it are not far more pernicious than the influence of pornography itself.

Last week, a conference on children in the virtual world was held in Rishon Letzion by the Eshnav Association (Eshnav is the Hebrew acronym for People for A Sensible Use of the Internet).

The conference's first session culminated in a talk by Dan Bareshko, a 15-year-old honors student from the Zalman Aranne Middle School in Rishon Letzion.

The charming youngster aroused mild consternation when he told the audience that to the best of his knowledge, all his friends visit porn sites. "Internet porn is an integral part of the maturation process," he said. "All kids are exposed to those kind of sites."

The exposure of children to Internet pornography means that parents and educators have to deal with questions that do not directly concern the Net, but have become more relevant because of its influence: Is sex education still relevant today, and who is responsible for it? Should parents be the only influence on their children as they become sexually active, or should the state intervene in the process, too? Or is it best to allow children to develop their sexuality on their own?

Rise in sex therapy

"The tremendous exposure to both distorted and distorting information about sex and sexuality, with which the media and the Internet are rife, only reinforces the importance of responsible and professional intervention that can help children mature in a healthier and happier way," states the Education Ministry's sex education site (tinyurl.com/6g2s4k).

"At an early age, every boy learns that he is a boy and every girl learns that she is a girl, and they become curious about their body parts. They discover that stimulating a sexual organ causes pleasure," the site says. However, it is likely that most children already knew this well before they discovered the Ministry's modest site.

According to Michal Shaviv, a counselor at the Education Ministry's Unit for Sexuality, Couple Relationships and the Family, the main problem is that it is difficult for educators to compete with pornography. "Unfortunately, nowadays the Internet is the main source for most youth's sex education," she said at the conference. "The money invested in this industry far exceeds the budgets the Education Ministry can allocate to sex education."

How does the massive exposure to pornography affect the process of maturation?

While Shaviv did not present any definitive data on the matter, she says it is possible to gain the impression that the number of youngsters who seek sex therapy because of overexposure to pornography has increased considerably.

According to sex therapists, there has been a sharp rise in the number of youngsters of army age who seek sex therapy because they find it difficult to form a relationship," Shaviv said. "When the threshold of sexual stimuli is so high, no real-life interpersonal relationship can meet it."

Open-door policy?

Eshnav recommends that to prevent children visiting porn sites, it is best to take the computer out of the child's room and move it to the living room or another open space. "When the door to a child's room is closed, it is impossible for the parents to know what their child is doing in there," said Baruch Heinoch, the chairman of Eshnav.

"They are not aware that it is necessary to move the computer to a public space."

And thus, while psychologists and counselors have for the past several decades been urging parents to afford their children privacy, so they can shape their personalities independently, now Internet safety consultants are advising parents to keep an open eye on what their children are exposed to.

"All over the world, panic about the Internet has led to legislation that has mainly harmed human rights, rather than helping," said blogger Yehonatan Klinger, who moderated a panel on the demonization of the Internet. Klinger believes that moving the computer out of the child's room is a problematic solution to supervising a child's surfing habits.

"There are many societies in the world where it is not customary to have doors on children's rooms, meaning the children are constantly supervised by their parents," he said.

"The question is whether we want to create this kind of society. To constantly supervise your child's surfing habits is just like your child not having a door to his room."

Klinger believes that moving the computer into a common area might be suitable for small children, but not for adolescents. Anyway, he says, "It certainly doesn't help when the parents aren't home."

Past research has shown that there is a connection between exposure to pornography and the development of a negative image of women. But is this really the core problem of what is bothering politicians and parents? Or is it their alarm at not being able to control their children's exposure to sex?

"Twelve-year-old boys get turned on," said journalist and blogger Gadi Shimshon (formerly the editor of the Walla and Nana Web sites), the author of the "Ars Poeti" blog.

"If you want to address this issue - talk to them. The Internet only bares the nakedness of the institutions that deal with sex education."

According to Shimshon, the discussion on Internet pornography is marred by hypocrisy. "Everyone talks about the dangers of pornography, but right after visiting Google, these people enter a porn site. There are those who proceed further, and there are those for whom that is enough."