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
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
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,"
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."
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
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 www.missingkids.org
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
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
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.