One might wander through the rank reaches of this garden for a reason: a teacher or a parent who feels the need to know how bad it can be out there. Or maybe a racist searching for kindred spirits, or someone lusting for images of brutality or sex. Often, though, you wander because you're 13.
Where an earlier generation of children sneaked hygiene texts off library shelves to giggle over drawings of the human reproductive system, our kids can now cruise through unspeakable swamps. But ask Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist based in Boston, if the kids he sees think of themselves as imperiled. "Because there's a lot of omnipotent thinking in adolescents," he says, "and because the dangers are somewhat more abstract than climbing trees, I don't feel they perceive the dangers in anything like the way adults do."
And it's not as if governmental action can really make any difference. The Internet is too diffuse, too international, too much the cat that long ago escaped the bag. Besides, as Brenda Laurel, a Silicon Valley veteran and mother of three girls, says, "Resisting open access to the Internet isn't going to be an effective strategy. It just makes it forbidden fruit."
If there is a war to be fought, the critical beachhead is in the home. For the wonder and the horror of the Web is not that it takes you out into the world; on the contrary, it brings the world--in all its glorious, anarchic, beautiful, hateful variety--into your home. We'd all prefer that the porn, the neo-Nazis, the violent misogynists and all the other floating trash of a cacophonous culture not wash up into our living rooms. But because they do, we are at least able to know the enemy. We can devise strategies to steer our children away from what's worst on the Net, and toward what is best, even as they grow up much, much too fast.
I think I first felt the parental quiver of fear when I had my initial encounter with a chat room--that invisible meeting spot where the impressionable encounter the unknowable. Web fans say that the Internet, and chats in particular, force interaction, engagement, connection. The favored term for all the Web's weightless, disembodied conversation is community. But in fact, the Web provides only a shadow of community; the interaction with another human being that is held out as the great virtue of Web community is actually interaction with the facsimile of a human being.
I remember passing through the study in our house when my 13-year-old daughter was engaged in a chat with someone who said she was a 15-year-old Californian named Cheryl. It occurred to me--and I suggested to my daughter--that her chatmate, with whom she was sharing the sort of intimacies a 13-year-old will indulge in, could just as likely be a 53-year-old backwoods hermit named Earl. It was a nauseating thought to both of us.
And it was frightening evidence of how, as the medium has matured, its architects' noble commitment to the user's privacy was becoming inverted. What was once a protective shield has now morphed into an obscuring cloak of anonymity. Inventive screen names and coy e-mail addresses have replaced those conventional signs of identity: a name, a face. Under the banner of privacy, Internet anonymity has become the ultimate plain brown wrapper. Some parents who decline to monitor their kids' online chatting liken it to eavesdropping on their phone calls, which they say they would never do. But there's a difference: when your child's on the phone, she knows who's on the other end of the line.
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