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Protecting Children From Internet Predators

By William J. Byron, S.J.

Parents worry about their children's safety on the Internet. A member of a blue-ribbon committee offers some practical ideas.


Get the Family Involved
Sad Stats
A Question of Character
Thornburgh Committee at Work
Practical Suggestions From the Thornburgh Committee
Help With Internet Filters

Kathleen McChesney: Helping the Bishops Get It

Photo by Ron Chapple

I'm convinced that www need not stand for "worldwide worry" over what kids are doing online. The trick is how to get discussion going within the family circle about potential problems posed by the Internet and how to forestall those problems.

Over the past several years I served on a committee headed by Dick Thornburgh, former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general, that would develop tools and strategies to protect children from pornography on the Internet. The committee was formed in response to a congressional request in 2000. We studied many strategies, listened to parents and educators and came up with the report, Youth, Pornography and the Internet.

When the committee's work was done and the report was completed, I felt a new obligation. How, I wondered, could I help parents talk to their youngsters about the ubiquitous problem of Internet pornography, as well as help the kids negotiate their way around it? At Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C., where I am pastor, I decided to try some of the strategies the committee had recommended.

Get the Family Involved

We began at Holy Trinity School on a Saturday afternoon in November (Saturday so that parents and children could participate together; afternoon so as not to interfere with the morning soccer games!).

The outside expertise we needed came from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The chief operating officer of that center, John Rabun, had served on the Thornburgh Committee with me. NCMEC was co-founded by John Walsh, whose own tragic experience also led to his role hosting the Fox Network TV show, America's Most Wanted and, more recently, NBC's The John Walsh Show.

Two NCMEC staffers, both graduates of Catholic schools, each quite knowledgeable in the ways predators and pornographers use the Internet to harm children, came to Holy Trinity to talk to parents and children.

One of them, Marianna Novielli, is an information research analyst for the U.S. Secret Service, assigned to work with NCMEC. The other, Michelle Collins, specializes in tracking down the identity of children who are exploited by child pornographers. Both are young, competent, articulate, attractive and committed to protecting children. They are great models to place in front of impressionable children.

A relatively small turnout for the event signaled one of the challenges we encounter in fighting Internet exploitation. Parents, by and large, are not uninterested and certainly not unconcerned, but they are uninformed. Thus, they are insufficiently alarmed at the threat that is commingled with all the positive potential the Internet offers to youngsters.

Who is most at risk? The Thornburgh Committee concluded it is 15-year-old girls who disclose too much personal information in chat rooms because they "just know" that they can somehow "tell" whether an Internet "friend," whom they have not yet met in person, is who he or she claims to be. An hour or two with our NCMEC experts could save these girls a lot of grief.

Michelle Collins and Marianna Novielli spoke first to the parents and children together for about 20 minutes. Marianna, the Secret Service researcher, then took all the children off to another room where no parents, teachers or clergy were present so that the youngsters could speak freely about what they had actually experienced on the Internet.

One bright 13-year-old boy told Marianna that he had visited online public chat rooms before. He admitted that, on several occasions, online strangers had attempted to gain information about his real name and location. "He was a street-savvy kid," she told me, "and he lied about the personal information he supplied to strangers. He thought that was the best thing to do."

She then told these youngsters not to respond to online strangers at all. "Kids feel anonymous online, but they really aren't—that can be a problem," said Marianna.

She found that other kids in her group had their year of birth and full name as their e-mail address. She told them to change those, if possible. "If a pedophile online is looking for a 13-year-old, he's going to chat with someone who has 1990 in his or her e-mail address."

Sad Stats

Michelle, the missing-child investigator, kept all the parents in the auditorium for a presentation of the statistical dimensions of the criminal activity she encounters as part of a normal day's work. The intent was not to frighten, just to inform and suggest that more parental involvement means supervising (not snooping) and encouraging youngsters to talk about objectionable images.

She urged parents to become familiar with what is called the
"CyberTipline," for reporting suspicious and/or illegal activity that they or their children might encounter online. All CyberTipline reports are individually reviewed by NCMEC analysts and then forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency. She invited parents to visit to learn about NCMEC's role in preventing child victimization.

She explained that parents and teachers ought to be concerned about all Internet communication: Web pages, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messages (IM), Usenet and peer-to-peer connections. Strategies targeted only on Web sites (and that's where most parent-teacher energy so far seems to be directed) will fall far short of the goal of protecting children from both predators and pornography.

Instant messaging is private one-on-one text-based dialogue; it can contain links to objectionable material.

Usenet is a worldwide network of newsgroups (also called forums or message boards) covering an estimated 40,000 (and growing) different topics. Users can post anything they care to, and often do so anonymously. The sexually explicit content on Usenet newsgroups is often more extreme than that on adult-oriented Web sites.

Moreover, sexually explicit Usenet newsgroups are conduits for advertising adult-oriented Web sites and can provide their users with a mechanism to swap sexually explicit material. Some Internet service providers carry a full line of Usenet newsgroups.

The Thornburgh report is good in staking out the reason why any parent of a healthy, normal child should be concerned: "The years between preadolescence and late adolescence are often turbulent times, in which youth struggle to develop their own identities. They are eager to be heard, seen and taken seriously, but often lack the experience and maturity to make responsible choices consistently. They test boundaries in developing their emerging adult personalities, and they take risks that adults would deem unwise.

"They are often socially uncertain, and they value peer approval highly. In pre- and early adolescence, hormonal changes generally stimulate their interest in sexual matters, which most youth correctly consider intensely personal. The at-a-distance nature of Internet communication, with which one can anonymously seek out a great variety of information, is highly appealing to very social but also sensitive individuals."

According to the Thornburgh report, one could argue that young people go online more for health information than for shopping, chatting or downloading music. There are technological tools to help a parent find where a youngster is going online, but privacy considerations and principles of positive parenting suggest that the most effective way to find out is simply to ask.

As one observer noted, "Keeping a child out of harm's way on the Internet has as much to do with a parent's ability to talk openly with a child as it does with how computer-savvy a parent is."

Some bright teen might argue that interfering with Internet use is a violation of his or her First Amendment protection of free expression. It might help to explain that this constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression protects a citizen only from government, and does not apply to private homes or private cultural or educational institutions.

Public schools and public libraries are, however, "government" in First Amendment matters. Yet the Thornburgh Committee report, acknowledging that the Supreme Court allows for a two-tier applicability of First Amendment protection to children, notes, "the government can prohibit children from having access to certain types of sexually explicit material that it cannot constitutionally ban for adults."

Government restrictions on Internet expression, though, are infinitely more difficult than, say, restricting teens' access to objectionable films at theaters or in video rental outlets.

A Question of Character

What a person does in secret tells you a lot about that person's character. The Thornburgh report favors openness over secrecy and looks to character development as a key to protecting our youth from Internet exploitation. Moral education gives the child guiding principles that, once internalized, lead to good choices, says the report.

Here are "Rules for Online Safety" that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children invites parents to ask their children to adopt:

• I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number, parents' work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents' permission.

• I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable.

• I will never agree to get together with someone I "meet" online without first checking with my parents. If my parents agree to the meeting, I will be sure that it is in a public place and bring my mother or father along.

• I will never send a person my picture or anything else without first checking with my parents.

• I will not respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make me feel uncomfortable. It is not my fault I get a message like that. If I do, I will tell my parents right away so that they can contact the online service.

• I will talk with my parents so that we can set up rules for going online. We will decide upon the time of day that I can be online, the length of time I can be online and appropriate areas for me to visit. I will not access other areas or break these rules without their permission.

For years, Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster) dominated the best-seller booklists. Largely forgotten is that book's subtitle: "Restoring the Character Ethic." It seems that restoration of the character ethic is the prescription for protecting children from predators and pornography on the Internet. Commitment to these rules for online safety is a great way to begin.            



Thornburgh Committee at Work

Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and I became friends 25 years ago when he was governor of Pennsylvania and I was serving as president of the University of Scranton. Still, I was surprised to get a call from him in the summer of 2000, and even more surprised that he was asking me to join a committee charged with initiating a study that would develop tools and strategies to protect children from pornography on the Internet.

"Why me?"

"Because, if you accept, you'll be the only one on this committee older than I am! More to the point, you've taught ethics at Georgetown and you're interested in corporate social responsibility. Besides, you and I together will lower the combined Internet I.Q. of this group of experts to a reasonable range."

Of course, he was joking a bit, but the nation's former top law-enforcement officer, then out of government and working as a private-sector lawyer, was quite serious about putting together a balanced committee that would work with the help of staff from the National Research Council, the operating arm of the private, not-for-profit National Academies. They provide independent advice to the government and the general public on public policy matters related to science, technology and medicine.

Youth, Pornography and the Internet, released in May 2002 by National Academies Press, is the product of the committee's work. Committee membership included academics and practitioners, parents and professionals, librarians and computer scientists.

The Thornburgh Committee conducted hearings, commissioned study papers and made site visits to middle schools, high schools and libraries around the country. At our organizational meeting in Washington, there were signs of varying levels of enthusiasm for two oft-suggested approaches: technological solutions like filters and enforcement strategies that make First Amendment defenders uncomfortable.

Two years later we were all convinced that there is no technical solution and that the challenge is reducible to a question of character. Just as children have to learn what is good or bad for them in the consumption of food and drink, they have to be encouraged to internalize the values that will prompt them to consume only appropriate Internet imagery, reject hate speech and other offensive messages delivered on computer screens and, most important of all, be aware of the perils of participation in chat rooms.

This is not to say that enforcement of anti-obscenity laws or installation of filters will not help; it is simply to say that more than that is needed.

The committee's report sends this message to the American public:

"To date, most of the efforts to protect children from inappropriate sexually explicit material on the Internet have focused on technology-based tools such as filters and legal prohibitions or regulation....While both technology and public policy have important roles to play, social and educational strategies to develop in minors an ethic of responsible choice and the skills to effectuate these choices and to cope with exposure are foundational to protecting children from negative effects....

"Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach—technical, legal, economic, or educational—will be sufficient. Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all of these elements, and real progress will require forward movement on all of these fronts" [italics added for emphasis].

It is important to note that the concern that launched the Thornburgh Committee project is not the criminal problem of child pornography. The committee dealt with protecting children from exposure, via the Internet, to products of the "adult entertainment" industry, to all inappropriate sexually explicit material and to potentially dangerous experiences occasioned by use of the Internet.

Although the report looks to character development for a solution, it has relatively little that is new to offer by way of "social and educational strategies" to foster the development of character. That surely signals a need for more research along those lines across the nation.

The entire report can be read online. Print copies can be purchased from National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, N.W., Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055. Web: Phone: 888-624-8373.

Practical Suggestions From
the Thornburgh Committee

Children typically know more about the Internet than their parents do. The good news is that they can and, in most cases, are quite willing to partner with their parents in setting age-appropriate guidelines for use of the Internet at home. (What happens in the homes of friends should also be known by parents and discussed with their offspring.)

Testimony taken by the committee from parents around the country is convincing on one commonsense guideline: No child should have a personal computer with Internet access in his or her private bedroom. The place for the computer is in a hallway or family room in open view of random passersby.

Prior agreement on the part of youngsters to inform parents, librarians or teachers as soon as something inappropriate appears on the computer screen is a helpful protective measure. How to avoid being "mouse-trapped" by hostile onscreen imagery or text, and how to handle unwanted "spam" while checking e-mail, are the kinds of topics parents and kids should be exploring together.


William J. Byron, S.J., past president of The Catholic University of America, is pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. He writes a biweekly syndicated column, "Looking Around," for Catholic News Service. He welcomes e-mail at



Help With Internet Filters

By John Bookser Feister

Most St. Anthony Messenger readers know where to turn for help with character development. Technology, however, might be another matter.

At the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families provides a Web site that reviews Internet-filtering software and services,

The filter site allows visitors to select the features they are interested in, then offers filtering options to match those criteria. The site also offers areas for visitors to post comments and share their own product reviews. The Coalition does not endorse any particular filter software.


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