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Child Safety Online

1. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The global Internet offers exciting new opportunities for children and families to research their homework online, communicate with international penpals, and build personal websites to share their creativity with others. But with these opportunities come challenges: how can children remain safe within this ever-expanding global village? Risks range from sites filled with misinformation to sites that expose users to illegal pornography. The problem of pedophiles and others who target children online is also a concern. In order to address these issues, law enforcement, the Internet and online industry, and families, libraries, schools, responsible corporations, and community groups must work together.

Children may not understand these online risks, and parents may not be familiar enough with current technological and other solutions to these concerns. Key to bringing more families online, and keeping them online, is educating the parents about the range of available options. There are things parents can do to protect their children. Should they wish to, they can make choices about what their children may access online.

Industry must also continue to address these concerns with inexpensive and easy to use solutions and “child safe” zones. Making broad access to quality content on the Internet must be a community top priority, where all schools, libraries, community groups, responsible corporations and parents join forces to identify and implement appropriate solutions.

2. INTRODUCTION

The development of the Internet has been called the most profound change in the way we communicate since the invention of the printing press. Users can access an almost limitless array of rewarding content at the click of a mouse. Familiarity with this technology is vital to our children’s future. For today’s children to lead tomorrow’s world, they must acquire the skills to access the enormous benefits of the Internet, safely. It is especially important that they develop key job skills and an awareness of the increasingly global community. The Internet can empower our children, giving them the ability to communicate and share ideas and information on a worldwide basis.

As wonderful as the future of the Internet may be, the extensive media coverage of various “potholes” on the Information Highway is not an exercise in fiction – there are problems which cannot be swept under the rug. These problems must be addressed squarely in order to protect our children and maximize the potential of the Internet.

The Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children Mission Statement identifies our common goal – to make our children’s online experience safe, educational and entertaining, while honoring constitutional safeguards. A diverse group has put aside their differing philosophies in order to further this important goal. The Summit enables us to work together to encourage the evolution of the Internet as a truly beneficial medium for our children.

There are many issues affecting children and the Internet. These include equitable access, marketing and advertising practices, quality content, privacy, and safety from harmful content and illegal activity, among others. Each of these topics needs to be examined thoroughly. The mission of this first Summit, and, therefore, the focus of this paper, is personal safety and protecting children from illegal and harmful material online – in particular, the twin issues of access to our children by pedophiles and access to pornography by our children.

3. BENEFITS AND RISKS

In 1996, 4 million children accessed the Internet from home, double the number from the year before. Recently, this number has been reported to have increased to 10 million, and is expected to exceed 20 million by the year 2002. The Internet is not a passing fad, like hula hoops or pet rocks. It will continue to grow because those who go online find it incredibly useful. For about $20 a month, all the information you could want on just about any topic is probably available somewhere online.

Nevertheless, it is important for this growth to take place safely. The vast majority of our 70 million U.S. children don’t access the Internet from home. To reach its full potential, families as a whole must be encouraged to get online. But this won’t happen unless the Internet industry can demonstrate to families that their children can venture into cyberspace safely. This is not an issue of public relations. It is an issue of substance, key to the growth of the Internet.

Although many of the risks encountered in cyberspace also exist in the “physical world,” the interactive nature of the Internet – especially when the children often understand more about the Internet than their parents, teachers, librarians, and other care givers – makes it harder to protect our children online. In addition, many common sense measures used in the “physical world,” are not applicable in the cyberworld. A pedophile could not enter a schoolyard disguised as a child, but can easily pretend to be a child in an online chat room. A child who could not browse through Hustler in a convenience store can view sexually-explicit images online, legal or illegal. For the Internet to develop its full potential, these risks must be realistically addressed.

The following areas are of substantial concern to parents and other care givers:

Access by pedophiles to children:

There are recurring press reports of pedophiles using chat rooms (note 2) to lure children into physical meetings. According to a recent national newspaper report, chat rooms are the most popular activity for children online, yet most chat rooms are unsupervised. Many are “private,” accessible only by invitation and special passwords (which may be provided to children by e-mail or “instant-type” messages to the screen of a targeted child).

Through use of chat rooms, adult strangers can have direct one-to-one access to our children. The “safe” home setting, combined with our children’s natural trust, may lead them to forget that these people are strangers. This makes it easier for the pedophile to prey on children who would never talk to a stranger in the “real world.”

Police investigators report that when they identify themselves as teenaged girls in chat rooms they are frequently approached by strangers making sexual advances. In addition, pedophiles have created a community online, where they can validate their behavior with other like-minded individuals and share information and “tricks of the trade.”

Access by children to pornography.

Pornography which is legally restricted to adults in the physical world can easily be accessed by children on the Internet. Also, children can easily access obscene materials, which are illegal even for adults in the United States. Children can be exposed to this content intentionally or unintentionally and can also receive unsolicited links to adult sites.

Children can inadvertently view sexually-explicit content in several ways:

  • Mistaken or mistyped URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) (note 3): The press reported the NASA.gov and NASA.com confusion, where many children seeking the Mars Mission photos found themselves confronted with a banner pornography site and direct free links to hard core sexual photos. While that site has been shut down, it is not an isolated incident and other such examples still exist.
  • The constant need to say “no.” Using common search engines to lookfor quite innocent information often brings in links to pornographic sites as well – for example, searches for “toys,””pets,””boys,””girls,” and even “Barney®” (the purple dinosaur) all bring links to porn sites among others. The need to constantly say “no” battles with a child’s natural curiosity.
  • Misdirected searches: Many search engines use hidden computer code to identify sites, relying on keywords and descriptions which are coded by the website operators, but are not visible to the people viewing the site. Again, in an effort to increase traffic to their sites (and thus advertising revenue), pornographic website operators use popular terms. When children search for favorite search terms, these sites pop up along with the sites the children are searching for. The website traffic statistics don’t distinguish between an adult hit and a child’s hit.
  • “Push” pornography and e-mailed links. With recent developments intechnology, content can be “pushed” to intended recipients either through special interactive applications, such as Java® and Active X®, or as links contained in e-mail. Children open their e-mail and find direct access to adult content sites. Some browsers display enclosed images automatically. These e-mails may bear subject lines that can be very deceptive, and children can’t determine their contents merely by looking at the subject line.
  • If a child, out of curiosity or carelessness, clicks on such links, the result will often be either a pornographic image (such as a commercial website “freebie”) or heavy four-letter language (for example, in the description of newsgroup or website contents). Once children are exposed to the material, it can never be erased from their minds.

Distribution of child pornography.

Child pornography is different from other pornography, and consequently receives more stringent legal treatment. It is distinguished as an issue of child abuse – in its production and/or in the way it is used by pedophiles to desensitize their victims. The growth of the Internet has provided child pornographers with a distribution vehicle which is perceived to be relatively anonymous. In its project “Innocent Images,” FBI personnel acknowledged earlier this year (note 4) that the bureau has a database of at least 4,000 cases of child pornography being distributed online.

Much of the media message to parents has been devoted to the dangers, as opposed to the educational and communication benefits, of the Internet. It must be remembered that the Internet is composed mainly of “good” content, which is one reason why the potential of the Internet is so exciting. Pornography sites make up only a small fraction of the sites on the Internet. The percentage of pornographic to good content doesn’t tell the whole story, however, since the “bad apples” are the most heavily accessed (note 5).

Everyone agrees that it is important for families not to have reason to be frightened away from the Internet. It is, therefore, incumbent on the Internet industry, responsible corporations and commercial sites to work with parents, educators, advocacy groups and law enforcement to create a safe online environment for children.

4. COMMUNITY EFFORTS

Parents bear the primary responsibility for teaching their children to be wise and safe Internet users. To do that, parents need to be aware of practical and helpful resources, safety tips and technology. Especially in an era of two-career families and single-parent families, however, parents cannot do the job alone. It is not possible (or even desirable) for parents to be with their children constantly, and the home is not the only point of access to the Internet. The problem is further complicated by the fact that some parents are not yet computer savvy.

To meet this challenge, parents need to be educated and to become more familiar with Internet uses and risks. They also need and deserve the joint commitment and creative support of the Internet industry, responsible corporations, community groups, schools, libraries, and law enforcement. The need for increased public awareness was the catalyst for the joint efforts of the Summit participants in creating a Public Education initiative, which is expected to be announced at the Summit.

Responsible corporations and commercial sites can develop more child appropriate content. In addition, several community groups have started to develop pre-approved site lists and focused search engines that prescreen content of included sites, to allow groups to select their own desired content, based upon their community values and standards.

5. QUALITY CONTENT AND USES

This paper has to some extent focused on the dark side of the Internet. In order to bring families online, however, they must be able to fully appreciate and access the tremendous benefits of the Internet. The bright side of the Internet is a wonderful place with millions of interesting sites for families and children. Our children can improve their communication skills online and meet people from other countries and cultures. Families can share information, photos and stories with the world and other family members. They can learn to be creative and share their creativity. Our children can research school projects right from home and families can plan vacations online. The list goes on and on…

It’s estimated that over 44 billion e-mail messages will be sent from home computers in 1997, for an average of 52 per week, per household. It’s fast becoming an inexpensive and convenient alternative for using the telephone, and a faster alternative to snail mail (the computer term for regular postal service mail). Families are staying in touch with other family members via e-mail. In e-mail, schedules and time zones are irrelevant. You send it when you can, and the recipients reply when they can. The Internet is always open, around the world. It’s also much more affordable than transnational and international phone calls, when parents are traveling on business or family members live abroad.

Parents can review their children’s reports and term papers for school, making suggestions for improvements, and calling certain resources to their attention, all by e-mail. It may be a poor substitute for family dinners and working side by side in the family room, but given the demands on parents with their careers and community activities, and those on children with their own activities and responsibilities, it works.

And it works both ways. Children can share information with others by attaching articles and other information to their e-mail messages. Families who use e-mail regularly report that they share more with each other.

There are also resources online for parents and special families, with special needs. These sites range from adoption sites, sites for parents of disabled children, sites for siblings of disabled children, sites for seriously and terminally ill children, sites for deaf children, and for children in wheelchairs, sites for foster parents, step parents and single parents, for parents of twins and higher multiples and for grandparents raising their grandchildren.(note 8). Everyone can find a community online.

In order to reach its full potential, Internet content providers must develop quality online content to enrich and educate our children and families. Ways must be created to identify trusted good site guides, and to create child-focused “safe-Internet-zones,” safe havens or closed systems. Branded sites and community-based ratings must be created, to help evaluate and recommend valuable and safe content. Parents and children need to develop online literacy skills, as well, in order to be able to locate and identify reliable information online.

Given the unlimited potential of global communication and information sources online, the more families know about the benefits of the Internet the sooner they will become insistent about their desire to see more of this beneficial content made available. Good and valuable content development will become good business.

6. CONCLUSION

One of the clear points of consensus among children, parents, industry representatives, schools, libraries, and law enforcement officials is that the Internet can be an immensely valuable means of communication. It allows easy access to online resources and tools, fosters collaboration, and expands the opportunities open to all its users. The Internet is becoming increasingly important for the transfer of both commerce and knowledge in today’s competitive world.

At the same time, children’s access to all of the world’s information, and all of the world’s people, may not always be in their best interests. Certain shortfalls and dangers exist and must be identified and addressed.

Parents are the ultimate arbiters of their children’s online experiences: where they go, with whom they chat, and what information they disclose. But parents should not be expected to bear all the responsibility of this job alone. In order for the Internet to be a safe, educational, and entertaining medium for children, responsibility must be shared by the public (which includes parents, educators and others), the technology industry, and the law enforcement community. Each must bear their share of responsibility and act with due diligence. With this community stewardship, the Internet will not only be a rewarding place for children but a safe one as well.

7. SIGNATORIES

The following signatories (received as of 5:00 PM, November 26, 1997) appreciate the efforts of the sub-committee of the Child Advocacy Working Group which prepared this document and encourage continuing dialogue on these important matters.National Center for Missing & Exploited ChildrenBoys and Girls Clubs of AmericaNational Law Center for Children & FamiliesSafeSurfNetShepherdNetNanny

APPENDIX

Technology Tool Kit – a pamphlet based on the Technology Inventory by Lorrie Faith Cranor (AT&T Labs – Research) and Paul Resnick (The University of Michigan School of Information) – http://www.research.att.com/projects/tech4kids

FOOTNOTES

1 – Inspired by the mission of the Summit, a sub-committee of the Child Advocacy Working Group has prepared an overview of the issues concerning child safety online. This paper does not necessarily represent the views of other participants at the Summit. (Return)

2 – Chat rooms are live online discussions where, by typing, you can communicate with others in real time. Chat rooms are typically used with online services such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe. America Online alone has over 25,000 chatrooms, with approximately 9,000 in use at any given time. Chats can also be conducted on the Internet. These are called IRCs (Internet Relay Chats), and require special software, often available from your Internet Service Provider. (Return)

3 – Government sites end with the “.gov” zone, while commercial sites end with the more commonly known “.com” zone. Certain adult site website operators, to increase traffic which in turn increases advertising revenues, have adopted well known government site names, changing only the zone, to capture the unaware websurfer (and therefore the all important “hit”). (Return)

4 – Weekly Standard, April 14, 1997 (Return)

5 – “While many other Web outposts are flailing, adult sites are taking in millions of dollars a month.” – Wall Street Journal, May 20, 1997. Also, at least one software filter developer (X-Stop) uses heavy traffic to a site as an indicator of probable pornographic content (which is then checked before inclusion on the “block” list). (Return)

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