Jokes and denial won't help children who are being exploited on-line
By David Antrobus
You’re chatting on-line about some Internet-related topic or other, and everyone’s engaged in the discussion. Then, out of left field, someone mentions an aspect of the topic in which they contend children could be harmed, and you groan. Because you know exactly what’s coming next: somebody else types one of the hoariest of Internet clichés, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” and all of a sudden everyone points and LOLs and a couple of wittier souls post amusing GIFs depicting pwnage.
It’s as successful (and, let’s face it, as unimaginative) as Godwin’s Law at cutting off discussion. I’m not even sure why this phrase is so effective at rendering otherwise reasonable positions instantly cringeworthy, but it is. Evoking a mental picture of a pious suburban moralizer, it leaves the nascent child advocate oddly defenceless, reduced to a helpless stereotype.
It’s my sense that three distinct viewpoints converge in order to create this blind spot. First, we have an assumption that child advocacy springs from the same source as “family values”, that it’s a convenient Trojan Horse within which some quasi-religious doctrines may be smuggled; second, when it comes paired with the on-line world, we suspect a disguised anti-technology agenda; and third, most of us are in denial about the realities of some children’s lives—it’s simply less painful to carefully maintain ignorance.
While all but the latter, arguably, can be defended—indeed, I have no doubt that there’s a reactionary, even angry element to many of those who decry the Internet’s effect on the safety of our kids—it’s necessary to put aside our distaste for the pitchfork-and-torches types and actually look anew at some of the very real ways in which children are nevertheless being hurt, on-line and off.
Take the recent Craigslist controversy. The story revolves around the charge that the on-line classifieds site encouraged prostitution by allowing its users to advertise various erotic services. The ferocity of the attacks increased after a man (dubbed the “Craigslist Killer” by a hysterical mainstream media) allegedly killed a woman he had met through Craigslist’s “erotic services” category.
Politicians and law enforcement people began to engage in what they perceived as the win-win of tapping into public outrage and forcing one of the Internet’s more successful ventures on the defensive. Attorneys general postured zealously and the media blustered along with them. A few wise observers opined that blaming Craigslist for prostitution would be like suing the street corner for the urban sex trade.
In the end, Craigslist’s enemies had their bluff called and wound up looking pretty boneheaded. Effectively, Craigslist applied for a temporary restraining order against the office of the South Carolina attorney general and the latter backed off, fully aware that the service had taken some very public good-faith actions and, even more pertinent, was legally immune under state law for unlawful third-party content on its Web site.
But what almost everyone had overlooked in all this was the youth element. Whatever the subtleties of the practice of exchanging money for sexual services between adults—and the arguments are indeed complex and nuanced—there were legitimate youth organizations trying to alert media outlets to a more obvious problem with Craigslist. Namely, that there were underage kids featured in the “erotic services” section, either being pimped out or volunteering for their own sexual exploitation right under everyone’s noses. Now, you don’t have to be a knee jerking blowhard to have a problem with that; and yet, in contrast to the adult prostitution angle, this aspect of the story received minimal reportage.
We shouldn’t be surprised. In the real (non-cyber) world, its equivalent is, for the most part, equally ignored—for example, when local residents are incensed by the street-corner activities in their neighbourhoods while almost willfully disregarding the kiddie strolls. Some of us who are in the business, nowadays, of helping to “Web-proof” our children were, in the past, steeped in the everyday reality of these street-damaged kids, and it’s not an aversion to technology that motivates us, but the memory of listening to a 12-year-old girl who has performed fellatio on a 50-year-old man in the back of a limousine describe her life.
Trust me, many of us who care about these young people love the Internet and related technology. We just don’t love the silence that surrounds the powerless and the vulnerable, and wherever it occurs, on- or off-line, we will try to help those quiet voices carry. We don’t wring our hands, we don’t wag our fingers, we don’t further cloud the issue with dubious religious values, and we don’t jump on political or law enforcement bandwagons.
For anyone reading this who has ever shut down a debate with that tired “think of the children” put-down, I just ask that you abandon the caricatures that allow such easy dismissal of everyday tragedies and, if not think of the children, then at least begin to—in the words of an even older example of iconic computer talk—think different.