Issue 102, Summer 2006

New technologies almost invariably stimulate irrational fear. In 1671, the governor of the colony of Virginia opined, “I thank God we have not free schools nor printing … For learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them … God save us from both."

The Internet has inspired just such a panic over its potential risks to children. Critics point to unprecedented access to sexually explicit materials to justify aggressive filtering and a dragnet-style search for would-be predators. The Attorney General recently declared countering “obscenity” a top priority, second only to terrorism.

Listening to some of the concerns over harm to minors, one might conclude that these were new threats. However, exploitation and abuse of children existed long before the Web, and it remains unclear whether children today face significantly greater risks than in the past. Some research suggests that the main threats to children’s well-being lie closer to home – with relatives, friends and acquaintances, rather than strangers met in online chat rooms – in which case, demonizing the Web deflects attention from more significant issues.

This is not to suggest that the problem is insignificant, just that it is not novel. Solicitation of a child for sexual purposes is illegal, and the law can be applied whether the offense occurs in the playground or the chat room. Just as parents in the past warned children about talking to strangers in the park, now they must warn them about such behaviors online, and, if they choose, install filtering software to prevent minors’ exposure to certain material.

A problem of a different nature arises if the focus on the risk from new technology begins to obscure its benefits. The Internet can be a life-saving source of information and support, for example, for teens who seek information online about such issues as HIV/AIDS prevention and depression. Efforts to “protect” youth through restrictions put them instead at risk from the harms of ignorance.

Protection is a necessary goal, but not one to be pursued to the detriment of a legitimate and often vital exchange of ideas. Just as the behaviors we fear online are familiar, so are the solutions. The concerns of parents and free speech advocates alike would be served by discussion, not overheated rhetoric; fact-based debate, not fear-mongering – techniques tested by every generation faced with adapting to whatever passed for innovation at the time.