CNet News Briefs
Monday, March 2, 1998

Lock up the children and save your family

Guess what? Another survey says the Net hurts family life.

by Mitchell Brown, mitchell@yahoo.ca

After a few years of hanging around as a small part of American culture, it slowly became a part of the mainstream. Men, women, and children of all ages were hooked, and they showed no sign of cutting down their consumption of the new medium. And no wonder: the subtle combination of words and images was an irresistible pull for many readers, and a growing number of publishers were more than happy to fuel the growing appetite for their products.

All was fine until a number of parents, psychologists, and other well-meaning types noticed that the kids were acting very unsociable, and this rise in bad behaviour seemed to happen at the same time that this new medium started taking up more of the children's lives.

Coincidence? Hardly, said a horrifed few, as they took a look at what their children were seeing and saw a lot of sexual images, horrific violence and generally disrespectful thoughts.

A few years pass. Finally, the United States Congress bowed to pressure from the moral majority and stepped in to protect young children from the bad words and pictures. It tabled a bill that would regulate this new influence on the minds of children and used the law to hold the publishers responsible for the vile trash that they peddled to the nation's children.

Then, in 1954, things really got ugly.

Is it silly to compare the Internet of the 1990s to the comic books of the 1950s? I don't think so. In their respective times, both are powerful media, both enjoy a loyal fan base and both suffer a lot of misconceptions on the part of people who don't take the time to understand them for what they are.

And just as surely as comic books were vilified in the '50s for exposing young minds to overtly sexual and violent images, the Internet is now facing the same slings and arrows from society's self-appointed guardians.

There are differences, of course. This time, the Internet has some powerful friends, and even the most zealous anti-Netter would have to acknowledge the parts of the Net that have a positive purpose. And, while the comic-book industry of the 1950s was almost destroyed by a small group of people, the Net is proving to be a little more resilient to criticism. Yes, most will say, there are some very bad parts of the Net that children must not see, but the Net has grown to be such a large part of our lives that we can't turn away from it now.

Not that some people aren't trying. Last week, the Globe and Mail, in its continuing effort to capture that key under-65-years-of-age demographic, ran a front-page story on a report about the Internet. "Internet can hurt home life", the headline proclaimed, and we then learn - horrors! - that half of Canadians know someone who spends so much time surfing the Net that it "hurts their family life".

I've read the study that the G&M based its story on. In fact, this part about broken families is only a small part of the study. A majority of those surveyed also felt the government should regulate pornography on the Net, a large number would not send their credit card numbers over the Net, and many blamed the decreasing level of privacy in Canada on El Niño.

No, seriously, it's the Net once again. This is important information for a medium so new that a majority of people out there still don't use it, because those of us who do use it need to know what the perceptions are before we can work on the problems. So let's try to keep calm and ignore the coverage that sees the Net only in terms of who can abuse it.

Granted, it's hard to keep a level head in a business that seems to change by the nanosecond, but I think it's important for us Net developers to take time to understand who our audience is supposed to be.

But getting back to this terrible thing the Net is doing to our families. Yes, a mother has neglected her children to surf the Net. Yes, a wife has left her husband for another man she met in a chat room. Yes, your 15-year-old son knows how to download the latest Pamela Lee pictorial. The Net did not create bad parents, unfaithful spouses, or teenagers with raging hormones, but it sure helps them explore their options.

And so what if it does? Getting hysterical about the Net's ability to distribute the bad stuff makes as much sense as getting hysterical about the proliferation of paper - it's a medium, a tool with which to communicate. That's all. To borrow a line from a certain lobby group, sites don't mess people up, people do.

We shouldn't be surprised that the media grabs the angle that paints the Net in the anti-family light. Mankind has this odd habit of reviling everything it also embraces. In the 1500s, Shakespeare's plays were naughty pieces of fun, but hardly for the children to see. In the 1900s, novels were blamed for young women frittering their time away. Then came movies. Then radio. Then comic books. Then television. Then the Net. Every age has had something to blame for all the kids acting rude and lewd; why should this age be any different?

Mitchell Brown is the online editor for Yahoo! Canada, where he gets to spend a lot of office time surfing the Web. He also goes out on dates and loves his parents. Honest.

Copyright © 1998 by Rogers Multi-Media and CNET, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.