Parental Supervision and the Net

By Wes Morgan wmorgan@DATABEAM.COM

The following, originally posted to the Cyberia-L mailing list, is the best analysis I have seen of this issue. It examines the fundamentalist assumption that children must use the Net alone, and therefore must be babysat by laws and censorware.--Jonathan Wallace

Ian C. Ballon wrote:

Parents and policemen can protect children in public parks, malls, restrooms, etc. It is not similarly possible (nor would it be desireable) to patrol the Internet in the same fashion. Unless a parent quits his or her job and hovers over a child it is not possible to actually monitor a child's use of the Internet.

You seem to imply that children merit Internet access at their own discretion (where time is concerned). I find this one of the most common pieces of rhetoric in the Great Net Censorship Debate (tm). Let me ask you a few questions. Given a child (let's call him Johnny):

Now, a few questions of this sort are answered (in part) by existing legislation/regulation (in Kentucky, for example, Johnny won't drive the car by himself until age 16.5, thanks to driver licensing law), but most of these issues are left to the discretion of the parents. This is as it should be, as far as I'm concerned.

Has my 4-year-old seen the Web? Certainly; I've created a set of bookmarks just for her, and she's used it when visiting my office. When will she enjoy unsupervised access to the Web? Who's completely dependent upon her intellectual/emotional development. I'll be installing a PC in my home in the near future, and you can bet that my kids won't see any sort of unlimited access (even to the local hard drive) for some time. That's my job.

Why is it so 'unrealistic' to expect parents to supervise their kids in this particular medium? Time and time again, we read of parents aghast at what Little Billy was doing on the computer in his bedroom; to me, the obvious question would be, "Why the heck did Little Billy get the privacy of a computer in his bedroom, for crying out loud?!" All one has to do is commit to a particular "computer time." It doesn't have to be more than an hour or so for younger children, and it doesn't have to be more than 3-4 times each week. I have no sympathy for those who won't give their kids that effort, but who feel free to call for third-party sanitation of the Net to account for their own shortcomings.

With television, by contrast, x rated shows are scrambled and there is no direct threat b/c the medium is not interactive.

If your only concern is the display of sexual acts, you're correct. If you are also worried about the exposure of your children to sexual *ideas*, violence or morals other than your own, you have to worry about Days of Our Lives, All My Children, the Montel Williams show, Sally Jesse Raphael, et alia ad infinitum - even the Discovery Channel has its share of gore (albeit from the animal kingdom; ever see "Lions on the Hunt?").

Screening software -- if it worked -- would allow a child to explore the Internet, while reducing certain risks.

I'm still waiting for that 'working' screening software; I believe that I'll be waiting for quite some time.

The simple moral of this entire 'debate' is a simple one. If you don't have a reasonable certainty that your child is ready for unsupervised Internet access, *don't* give it to them. How difficult can this be? It's just like deciding when they first go to the library, when they get to wear underwear instead of diapers, or when they get to go to their first birthday party at a friend's house. Don't limit *my* choices for my children just because other parents are unwilling/unable to do their job.

Wes Morgan is a network engineer with more than 15 years' experience in public networks; his long-time interest in the social and ethical aspects of the online world has only been sharpened by the arrival of his four young children.