Monday, January 4, 1999

Week of 01/04/1999

Target: Kids and Computers
Four Little Words Can Settle This Issue
- by David Matthews 2

Later on this month, the US District Court in Philadelphia will once again take up the issue of computers, the Internet, and the First Amendment.

The Child Online Protection Act, otherwise known as COPA, was passed by Congress and the Clinton Administration as part of an omnibus spending bill. The author of COPA was the co-author of the original Communications Decency Act, the anti-American law that criminalized "indecent" speech online. The US Supreme Court has already struck down CDA as being blatantly unconstitutional. It is hoped that the court will do the same to this equally anti-American law.

But the issue that caused it will not go away. Moralists still shriek at the top of their lungs about how the Internet is a "danger" to children. Should COPA meet the same fate as the CDA, Congress is prepared to send more anti-American legislation in the form of domain name zoning. Zero-sum arguments on this issue are more reminiscent of the McCarthy Communist Witch Hunts of the early 1950’s than valid discussions leading to practical solutions.

Nobody questions that the issue of kids and computers is a serious one, but there are four little words that nobody seems to ask:

Where are the parents?

Every instance of children being lured online by pedophiles to run away gets headlines. Every paragraph talk about the dangers of kids being online. But there are four little words nobody utters:


We hear about kids accessing "indecent" sites online, and moralists are just chock full of their ready-made "experts" to say how "traumatic" the exposure to these sites are for kids, but nobody asks the four little words that should go with that:


Everybody wants to give kids their own computers, but nobody seems to ask the four little words that should go hand-in-hand with that task:


Where are they?

In any other instance, when kids get in trouble for doing something designed for adults, the first question asked is where are the parents when it happened. A 12-year old crashes a single-prop airplane, the first question asked is where are the parents. An 8-year old hot-wires the family car and crashes it, and everybody asks where are the parents. Two kids take the family guns and go on a sniper hunt at the local school, and everybody asks where are the parents. But computers? Well nobody seems to ask that question, and maybe they should!

Let’s be brutally honest here. Kids and computers are a serious responsibility. Despite the fact that the American introduction to the home computer use came in the form of arcade-style games (remember Pong?), computers - and especially the Internet - were never designed for kids! They were designed for adults.

The first commercial online service, CompuServe, was designed for business users. The first personal computers were designed for adult electronics enthusiasts. The Internet was initially designed for the military, industrial, and educational institutions. All of these things were designed for adult use, not for kids.

So WHY is it that parents feel they are exempt from their responsibility when it involves computers?

Is it because they feel inadequate when it comes to computers? You know, I’m constantly encountering people who say they’re "technically-challenged." It’s become the latest fad. "I don’t know squat about computers, therefore I don’t have to be responsible for them!"

What bunk!

Responsibility for the computer, and to teach your kids on how to use it properly, is not limited to how much knowledge you have on computers and the Internet! If you have kids, it’s your responsibility to show them how to use the computer responsibly. That’s the job of a parent! Just as it would be your responsibility if your child drank drain cleaner and bleach from under your kitchen sink, so too are you burdened with the making sure your child uses the computer properly.

I have little sympathy for parents who feign ignorance and irresponsibility when it comes to computers and the Internet. If you don’t know, fine. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t. We were all newbies once. All of us, myself included, were once clueless as to how to use computers. But then comes the next step - learning. You have to figure out how that thing works.

You know, there are more and more tools available for parents so they can learn how to use that computer and to use it properly than ever before. There are books out there specifically titled for "idiots" and books out there for "dummies" as well, so there are no excuses for parents to claim that they can’t "understand" the material available. There are classes available as well. You local community college may offer classes on how to use the computer properly. Computer stores like CompUSA offer classes as well.

Worse comes to worse, ASK someone who knows! I’m not a computer expert, but I get plenty of people who ask me for help about the computer problems they have. I have no problem with friends and acquaintances asking me about how to download a program, or even to click on a hypertext. I would much rather have them know than to continue the perpetual excuse of being "technically-challenged."

The next argument that parents make is that their kids know more about computers than they do. Look, folks, I realize that kids are little more inquisitive than adults. They have time and the patience to look at things that you may not think of instantly. That does not mean you can shuck your responsibilities, that just means you have to work that much harder to make sure they know how to use that computer properly. Parents somehow think that having their eight-year old child serve as the technical "expert" of the family is a badge of honor. It’s not. It’s a sign of incompetence and irresponsibility on behalf of the parents.

Now I will say this - I know there are plenty of good parents out there who do everything in their power to make sure their kids are taught right from wrong. It’s not an easy challenge nowadays, but it is something that must be done.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of other parents as well who try the easy way out. They think that if they sit their kid in front of the TV set or the computer that somehow things will be better. They mistakenly believe that the Internet or the TV could serve as an artificial babysitter for them, relieving them of their responsibilities. You had might as well let them play in traffic for all the good that does!

These are the people who make this issue so hard to resolve, because they DON’T want to be responsible parents. They DON’T want to know how to use that computer. They DON’T want to know how to use online filters. They DON’T want to put the computer someplace where they can use it and properly monitor its use. They want other people to burden the responsibility that they consciously abdicate.

The issue is easy to solve when we remember that parental responsibility should be one of the first questions asked. All you have to do is trace the pattern of decisions. Who made the decision to purchase the computer? Who made the decision to place it in a certain area? Who made the decision to hook it up online? Who pays for the phone lines for that online access? Who makes the decision to go online? Who pays for the credit card that pays for that online access? If the answer on all those questions happens to be "the parents," then the burden of responsibility rests with them.

So the next time you open up the newspaper or turn on the TV set and hear about little Johnny Dimple or Suzy Purebred being "traumatized" for going to an adult-oriented site, ask yourself that one question nobody seems to want to ask - Where were the parents when this happened?

No comments: