TUCoPS :: Cyber Law :: kidsafe2.txt

Caution: Children at Play on the Information Superhighway

>From the 11/28/93 issue of The Washington Post, page 1.


By John Schwartz 
Washington Post Staff Writer 

[(c) The Washington Post, 1993]
Genevieve Kazdin, a self-appointed crossing guard on the information 
highway, remembered the day last September  when she found an 8-year-old 
girl attempting computer conversations with a group of transvestites. 
Seemingly safe at home, the child was playing with her favorite $2,000 
toy, using her computer and modem to make new friends through a 
service called America Online. 
   The name of the electronic discussion group the girl had discovered 
was called, confusingly enough, "TV chat" -- the TV being shorthand for 
transvestite. Kazdin said the girl had read it differently: "She was 
thinking in all innocence, 'We're going to talk about Barney.' " 
   Kazdin recognized the girl's "screen name" because the Massachusetts 
grandmother helps run America Online's programs for children. Kazdin 
chatted with her little friend via keyboard, gently steering her to a 
more appropriate part of the service -- and preventing one of a growing 
number of daily culture shocks as users wander into rowdy 
neighborhoods found in the new online community. 
   Just when parents and schools are urging children to play with 
computers, the nature of their use is changing. Increasingly, computers 
are linked by networks to other computers -- and those networks are 
connected to other networks worldwide. As a result, users are exposed to
an astonishing variety of information, including some of the raunchier 
aspects of human life. 
   To its denizens, that diversity is one of the most valuable features 
of "cyberspace," as the online world is known. But the inevitable mixing
of adults and children online has raised questions of parental 
supervision, moral education, free speech and license. Vice President 
Gore's vision of a "national information superhighway" where every 
schoolchild can tap the resources of the Library of Congress could be 
threatened by a darker vision. 
   Elizabeth Churchill Hamill, a 39-year-old landscape architect in 
Oakland, said that her telecomputing 13-year-old son "started getting 
messages full of sexual innuendo from adult women." Hamill was engaged 
in a running discussion of children and computing earlier this year on 
the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL), a Sausalito, Calif.-based online
service that lets users post and read messages on thousands of topics. 
"I would be thinking, how nice that he's spending so much time 
developing his writing and typing skills, when suddenly he would ask, 
'Hey, Mom, what does '69' mean?' " 
   Finding one's way around the varieties of online experiences is often
as easy as clicking the computer's "mouse." Each system offers a menu of
options, from computer tips to news, games and encyclopedias. 
   Users communicate with each other either by electronically posting 
messages (e-mail) or by "chatting" -- that is, typing their remarks back
and forth on the screen in the print equivalent of a live conversation. 
The amount of information available about each user depends on the 
network: Some services offer full "profiles" of each subscriber; other 
services allow users to identify themselves only by name or by their 
online "handles." 
   On America Online, users who want to communicate with others 
connected to the service at the same time simply click on a cartoon of a
man and a woman talking that bears the title "People Connection." They 
can then choose from any number of "chat rooms" available at the moment 
with names like "Bible chat" or "The Flirts Nook" or "Gay and Lesbian." 
   Letting Youngsters Cruise the E-Mall 
   Dropping children in front of the computer is a little like letting 
them cruise the mall for the afternoon. But when parents drop their sons
or daughters off at a real mall, they generally set ground rules: Don't 
talk to strangers, don't go into Victoria's Secret, and here's the 
amount of money you'll be able to spend. At the electronic mall, few 
parents are setting the rules -- or even have a clue about how to set 
   "We call it the IUD syndrome," said Jim Thomas, a University of 
Illinois sociology professor who studies the computer underground. 
"Parents are ignorant, technology is ubiquitous, and some of the 
information is deleterious." 
   Of course, cyberspace is little more than a new neighborhood, albeit 
a virtual one. Longtime net dwellers say you're no more likely to 
encounter the digital equivalent of a flasher there than, say, in any 
real-life playground. 
   Yet the parents most concerned about what their children might 
encounter online are the ones most familiar with the pleasures and 
perils of cyberspace. Perhaps they have engaged in idle flirtation with 
people they met online. They might have dallied with "cybersex," the 
practice of typing sexually explicit fantasy scenarios back and forth, 
or "downloaded" erotic photos to display on their computer screens. Or 
they could have encountered discussions of the fine points of 
bomb-making or how to steal credit card numbers. 
   But those parents with no online experience also should be preparing 
themselves and their children, said Sherry Turkle of Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology, an expert on children and computing. "In two 
years," she said, "everyone's going to have this problem." 
   Children's access to the many varieties of online experiences is 
booming, and many are now using Internet, a vast international network 
of networks that once was used primarily by researchers but now 
connects millions of ordinary users. 
   Janice Abrahams, an Internet enthusiast who is writing a book about 
students online, estimated there are 150,000 Internet accounts (each of 
which can be shared by many people) for students, teachers and school 
administrators in the 22 states she has surveyed. She expects to see 1.5
million accounts nationwide within 30 months. As more schools rush to 
explore online education, she said, the Internet "is going to go crazy 
with the kid connections -- that's the area of explosive growth." 
   Online collaboration is one of the ways that computers truly add 
value to schooling, said Gary Watts, executive director of the National 
Education Association's National Center for Innovation here. Programs 
sponsored by organizations from the National Science Foundation to the 
National Geographic Society bring children from around the world online 
to meet and learn. Some programs, such as the Bonita, Calif.-based 
FrEdMail Foundation, put children directly on the Internet for research 
and communication. Participating in a national science project -- 
comparing acid rain data, for example, or checking out their school 
lunches for nutritional value -- involves and excites students. 
   But there are even more opportunities to telecompute at home. About 4
million people now subscribe to commercial online services such as 
CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online, most of which now offer some 
programs for children and are beginning to offer Internet access 
   As the range of a child's possible experiences widens, sex isn't the 
only parental concern. A growing danger is computer addiction, said 
Turkle. She has long counseled parents not to worry too much about 
children who develop temporary near-obsessions with video games or 
solo computing. Given enough time, she said, most develop a satisfying 
mastery and dial back to normal use -- a pattern similar to young fans 
of chess and other pursuits. 
   But sometimes they don't. Turkle is studying people who spend endless
hours in the online fantasy and role-playing games known as Multi-User 
Dungeons, or MUDs. Players enter the game by dialing into the 
appropriate computer system. The remote computer sends text that 
describes a scene in a fantasy setting -- say, an enchanted castle. 
Players create an online persona and then type in commands like "north" 
or "enter" to move from room to room, where they might hunt for treasure 
or fight vicious monsters programmed into the system. They also can 
converse with other players through their keyboards; hundreds of players 
in different cities might be spread out through a game at the same time.
   Turkle finds that MUDs offer overly seductive chances to withdraw 
from reality for people already inclined to do so. "Kids disappear into 
imaginary relationships all the time" as a normal and healthy part of 
growing up, she said, but "usually there's a limit to how far that 
imaginary relationship can go, because it's all in their head." In an 
online game, "those limits are taken off." 
   On MUDs, too, online meetings can quickly turn uncomfortable. Isaac 
Dziga, 12, of Berkeley, Calif., was wandering through the virtual halls 
of a game castle recently. (In fact, he was roller skating; because 
players are free to come up with their own characters, Dziga had written
in a set of wheels for himself.) Suddenly, another player began typing 
suggestive messages to him, such as "Do you find me attractive?" 
   Before Dziga, whose online character is named "Moonshadow," could 
come up with a coherent response, the other player typed, 
"Moonshadow's skates are tenderly untied and removed." 
   Isaac responded by typing: "Moonshadow grabs his skates and 
disappears." He reported the incident to an adult who runs the computer 
game system. The adult "nuked" the offender, removing her from the 
   Mike Godwin worries about a different kind of juvenile temptation: 
the lure of antisocial and even criminal acts. Godwin is an attorney 
with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington-based online civil
liberties and policy group -- and a new father. His organization 
sometimes aids the legal efforts of people accused of computer crime 
whose cases raise constitutional issues. "We already face a large number
of young computer users who have no scruples about computer intrusion, 
privacy violations, and other computer-related misconduct," Godwin said.

   'Bulletin Boards' for Juvenile Crime? 
   Many young people come to computer crime by a common route, Godwin 
said. They often meet similarly inclined children on local "bulletin 
board" systems (private networks usually run from home computers) 
devoted to breaking into other computer systems for fun. As they get 
more involved, they seek out other bulletin boards and big computer 
systems. They might begin paying for the many long-distance calls 
needed to support their exploits with stolen telephone accounts. 
   Young people are especially vulnerable to the temptations of computer
crime, Godwin said, because many of them "don't really see the persons 
or entities on the other end of a computer interaction as being totally 
real." The computer offers anonymity, a kind of phosphor-dot mask. And 
as the boys learned in "Lord of the Flies," a mask can give the wearer 
license to do forbidden things. Not all children will succumb, of 
course. "It's not that steep a slope -- but kids are more likely to 
slide down it than anyone," Godwin said. 
   Despite their worries, few parents want their children to miss out on
the online revolution, so parents and educators have begun to provide 
innovative ways to deal with the more troubling aspects. Programs such 
as Kids Only OnLine at America Online offer a wholesome haven, and 
adults like Kazdin serve as chaperones. America Online, CompuServe and 
other services now let parents limit their children's access. 
   Skeptics say any attempt to put blinders on children is doomed to 
fail, and the solution lies in that most daunting task: teaching values.
"In our house we don't have any kind of information censorship -- we 
have a lot of conversations about what to do with information when you 
get it," said John R. Sumser, executive director of the Point Foundation
(the Sausalito-based nonprofit organization that publishes the Whole 
Earth Review and that started the WELL). Steve Wozniak, who designed 
the original Apple computer that helped kick off the personal computer 
revolution, said that while he doesn't like everything he sees on the 
Net, "The way to steer :youngsters: away from it . . . is setting good 
examples and letting the kid burn out" on objectionable material. 
   School programs are beginning to teach the responsibilities that go 
with a computer password. Mary Ellen Verona, who runs the computer 
science program at the Montgomery Blair High School magnet program in 
Silver Spring, requires both students and their parents to sign a form 
before the children type their first command. It outlines the 
responsibilities, purposes and limits of school computer use. Those who 
violate the school rules -- say, by breaking into other computer systems
-- face a stiff penalty: They lose their online privileges. "For many of
them, it's a tremendous punishment," Verona said. 
   John Clement, an official at the National Science Foundation who 
deals with issues of schoolchildren on the Internet, said once students 
get a sense of right and wrong in cyberspace, "We don't believe in prior
control. We do believe in nailing someone when they do something wrong 
-- and nailing them hard." Clement has made his teenage son pay off his 
own computer-related long-distance bills. 
   The best way to keep children out of trouble might be to scout out 
cyberspace with them. Noting that America Online now boasts 450,000 
subscribers, Kazdin said, "You wouldn't let your kid walk the street 
alone in a city that large -- and you shouldn't here, either." As with 
any city, "We have the same collection of wonderful, good people -- and 
some real weirdos," Kazdin said. 
   Hamill, the mother whose son received the numerical proposition, 
agrees. She spends time online herself, and even met her boyfriend on 
the WELL. "It gives me some authority when I talk to them," Hamill said.
   As for the children themselves, many tend to think their parents' 
concerns are lame. 
   One 15-year-old user of America Online who goes by the name "Stud 
15" admitted to occasionally engaging in cybersex, but said it's "just 
something me and my friends do to show how smooth we are." The Los 
Angeles boy said his parents don't know how raw some of his discussions 
get, but said they shouldn't worry: "It is the safest sex around." 
   Noah Johnson, 15, of Berkeley, revels in the world of online 
discussion and debate, and calls parents "irritatingly overprotective." 
Johnson, whose online name is "streak," said via electronic mail, "What 
their kids are being exposed to is the real world. Real people, making 
real points, about real ideas. If I had a kid, I'd be bloody thrilled if
the kid was online instead of watching 'Beverly Hills 90210' or some 
damn thing." 
   Children can fend for themselves online, Johnson said. And despite 
their misgivings, some parents are finding that he's right. Hamill 
recounted with pride what happened when her 11-year-old son was 
approached online recently by a woman in her 30s who invited him to "do 
it," perhaps not knowing his age. "He sent her a message back saying, 
'Sure -- maybe in a couple of decades.' " 

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