North County Journals | May 1, 2002

Adults owe children internet protection

Opinion Shaper
by Josh Renaud

If you have an email account, there's a good chance you've been exposed to internet porn through spam at some point. Unfortunately, porn pervades the internet. It's easy for anyone to stumble onto it -- even kids.

That's a disturbing idea for most people. Congress has taken up the issue in recent years, passing several laws to try and protect kids from online porn and other objectionable content. But those laws were overturned by the Supreme Court for violating free speech.

In 2000, Congress took a different approach, passing the Children's Internet Protection Act. Essentially, CIPA requires libraries and schools that receive certain types of federal funding to install filters that block out websites with objectionable content like porn, the Anarchist's Cookbook, and things like that. The difference is that these institutions can choose not to install the filters, but they would no longer be eligible to receive federal dollars.

The law is being challenged by the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups.

While this law was probably passed with the best intentions, its "one size fits all" approach is not the best solution. Right here in North County, school districts and libraries have come up with their own different ways to protect kids, without the federal government's help.

For instance, the St. Louis County Library separates child and adult computers. Children under a certain age are not allowed to use "full-access" terminals without their parents' permission. Instead, they use terminals that are only capable of visiting certain child-friendly websites. All users must sign in and present a library card before using the computers. If a librarian notices someone viewing an objectionable website -- or if another patron complains -- they will require that person to stop.

The Hazelwood School District took a different approach, adopting internet filters five years ago. The "Cyber Patrol" company constantly updates a list of objectionable sites to block out for the district. If a teacher or student finds a legitimate site is blocked by the software, the district can unblock it.

It's comforting to know that those responsible for educating children in our area have taken action. Whether or not CIPA is struck down by the courts, our kids will still be relatively safe when they are at school or the library.

But there's one more side of this issue that has been ignored. How do we protect kids when they are online at home?

Many parents are intimidated by computers and technology. They let their kids go anywhere online. When kids are alone in the privacy of their own homes or their own rooms, they are far more likely to seek out the stuff that will cause them harm.

Families need to examine this issue the same way educational institutions have, and come up with a plan. For some, internet filters might be the answer. Others might decide to only allow their kids online with supervision. Another family might put the computer in the living room so there's no temptation.

The danger is for families who do nothing, because no law can help kids then.