Blown To Bits

More on Internet Safety

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I was pretty shaken by the end of the first day of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force yesterday. I had a meeting right afterwards, which I entered by yelping a primal scream.

All day yesterday, company after company gave presentations on how their products would help keep little Johnnie safe from predators and away from pornography. (You can check the conference program for the names of these businesses and hot links to their products. I should hasten to add that while I didn’t like much of what I was hearing, the meeting was run flawlessly — civil and lively and punctual too. Congratulations for a superb job by John Palfrey and the Berkman Center staff.) Some of the businesses offering solutions then answered the question of what we should do when Johnnie, frustrated with his overbearing parents, goes down the street to Libertarian Libby’s home, where the computer has no spyware: If we didn’t either keep Johnnie out of Libby’s house, or walk down the street ourselves and sell the same product to Libby’s parents, well, we were bad parents.

I tried to make the point that it is developmentally unhealthy to surveil your kids constantly, and safety was not the only value at stake. Growing up and learning trust and self-reliance are important too. Absolutely, was the answer. When your cell phone rings half a continent away because our product just caught Johnnie typing “boobs” into his Web browser, that creates a great opportunity for parent and child to sit down for a heart-to-heart.

I rather think that kids growing up in a 1984 childhood will expect to live in a 1984 adult world, with Big Brother watching over them constantly.

In any case, I am given to understand that there actually isn’t any evidence that predation on children is on the increase, in spite of the Internet horror stories, some of which we repeat in Blown to Bits. (One company actually reported that after monitoring tens of thousands of children, they had reported exactly 3 potential predators to the police.) Moreover, children who are victims are statistically likely to have other issues, and to come from families whose parents (if they have any) wouldn’t spend their nights worrying about their children’s safety. Child predation is a problem, but there are worse problems at which societal resources should be directed (for example, brutal child pornography is on the rise, I understand). Where we seem headed with Internet safety seems mad.

Several of the companies reported that the would retain the information they collected “forever.”

The fundamental problem with the agenda the states’ Attorneys General laid out is that it is premised on a moral and perhaps legal presumption that parents have an absolute right to know everything that their minor (under 18) children are saying and hearing. If society worked that way, it would never make any progress, as the prejudices and taboos of the parents would be handed on perfectly from one generation to the next. That isn’t social conservatism; that’s the preservation of human ignorance.

9 Responses to “More on Internet Safety”

  1. Leave your kids alone « Arctic Penguin Says:

    […] your kids- and I am glad that some experts agree with me. Prof. Harry Lewis writes on the Blown to Bits blog about his stance on “spying” on children and I agree with him in that I don’t […]

  2. Luke Says:

    Just monitoring your children can be very Big Brotherish. I think accountability software is a great option for the whole family. The more kids see their parents modeling a life of accountability, the more they see them not making their own Internet life a secret thing, the more likely they are to want be accountable themselves with their own Internet use.

  3. auntlee Says:

    What I came up with was an appeal to kid’s humor and common sense — a funny video and a silly quiz.

    The quiz doesn’t really focus on stranger-danger type concerns but rather gently and humorously reminds the reader that it’s possible to hurt people’s feelings, to mislead people who don’t realize you’re joking, to remember that online postings can be seen by anybody and that postings are often impossible to remove once posted.

    The video is a selection of silly clips supposedly posted to the MySpace pages of the famous puppy and some of her friends. The clips demonstrate mistakes kids can make online.

    The 10 question quiz covers the topics of cyber-bullying, privacy, safety, dangers of spyware and malware, etc.

  4. Identity Woman » Nov 13th Kids Online: Balancing Saftey and Fun - (un)confernece about the issues and best practices Says:

    […] Lewis – More on Internet Safety I was pretty shaken by the end of the first day of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force […]

  5. The Technology Liberation Front » Age Verification Debate Continues; Schools Now at Center of Discussion Says:

    […] sum, we need to get serious about talking to our kids about online safety and proper online behavior. Education is the key, and government has a major […]

  6. KenS Says:

    Accountability software can be circumvented and completely relies on the idea that kids will do the right thing and act as angels. If you think monitoring software is “Big Brotherish”, you either don’t know how to use it as a responsible parent (it’s a 2-way street) or you haven’t found the right title. Check out PC Pandora ( The reason kids are out of control these days and getting themselves into trouble is because parents aren’t using software and letting kids have too much freedom. Now they think we owe THEM everything, they disrespect teachers and other adults, and they are seriously… well, stupid (America slips every year in international ranking test scores). Maybe it’s time parents act like parents, put their foot down and get tough. Be involved. Have the knowledge. And be a parent… before it’s too late.

  7. Harry Lewis Says:

    I was tempted to respond to that one, but maybe one of my (perfect, and never keylogged) children is reading and would like to weigh in!

  8. Andy Oram Says:

    This article I wrote in 1998 has received a good deal of praise:

  9. Jiangang shang Says:

    Harry Lewis,
    In China, Child over 16 years old is a adult if he/she is independent, living on by her/himself. Of course, this kind child has her/his own privacy. Parents have no right to watch over their child with a Big Brother.