Protecting Kids On-Line: A Growth Industry

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I was privileged to be part of this year’s annual meeting of FOSI, the Family On-Line Safety Institute. This was the first year they invited a sex expert. So it was 400 public policy people and one sex guy—me.

The lineup of speakers was extraordinary: a Senator; senior executives from companies like Verizon and Comcast; several state Attorneys General; President Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer; and dozens of heavy hitters like Adam Thierer (Progress & Freedom Foundation) and Larry Magid (ConnectSafely).

The complexity of the internet, broadband, and mobile-connected world of kids and teens which they discussed for two days had my head spinning. Preschoolers tweeting?

Everyone agreed that the online environment posed various dangers to kids; thankfully, in addition to talking about predators, these sophisticated people talk about cyberbullying and other problems that are far more common in most kids’ lives.

All speakers expressed commitment to the same thing: helping young people have safe, productive experiences online. Of course, sincere people disagree on how to define “safe” and “productive”—a common disagreement whenever sexuality is involved. That tension underlines policy discussions of adult sex-related issues, too, like the morning-after pill, prostitution, and same-sex marriage.

With this all-star lineup I didn’t have much time, but I did make the following points:

* Why do kids use the internet for various sexual activities? Why NOT? Kids are sexual (whether we like it or not), and the internet is the most powerful communications technology ever invented. Of COURSE they’ll use it for sexual purposes—just like adults do.

* How should we deal with kids sexting? The way we would deal with it if we could see beyond its sexual aspect: by talking about trust, power, privacy, and fairness, and respect.

* Parents don’t need help dealing with their kids’ sexuality online—they need help dealing with their kids’ sexuality, period. Most parents deal with their kids’ online erotic lives the way they deal with their kids’ offline erotic lives—by ignoring or problematizing them. Whether they’re talking about the internet, the playground, or hooking up, parents need to discuss sexuality with their kids beyond the context of danger and safety.

* We’re preparing our kids for lives they’re NOT going to have—lives without erotic feelings, falling in love, and sexual decision-making. In doing so, we leave them unprepared for the lives that they’re going to have—whether we’re comfortable with that or not.

* It would be great if kids were as thoughtful and careful online as many policy-makers wish they would be. But that’s expecting kids to make better decisions online than most adults do. When tens of millions of adults are hooked on their blackberries, spending too much time in chat rooms, and being deceitful about porn use or online flirting, why are we surprised when kids reveal themselves too much on facebook or by sexting?

In most states, the age at which a picture qualifies as child pornography is higher than the age of consent. And so privately, I asked the Attorney General of one western state how he could justify criminalizing pictures of teens being sexual if the sexual acts themselves were legal. He kept telling me that the pictures were illegal no matter how they were created, so that ended the conversation fairly quickly.

He was more interested in enforcing the law than in understanding how it affects the society he supposedly wants to protect. Perhaps his attitude would change if his 16-year-old son had to register as a sex offender because he’d shared a nude photo of his girlfriend.

There are, of course, some real threats to the health and safety of young people online. But sometimes the criminal justice system is one of those threats. I wish this had been discussed seriously during the two-day conference.

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