Study: Laws, filters alone won't protect children from Net porn
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Simply passing laws or blocking computer access won't protect children from pornography on the Internet. Instead, a blend of technical, educational and other steps are needed, the National Research Council reported today.
"No single approach can provide a solution, since any one approach alone can be circumvented with enough effort. A balanced mix of strategies is needed," said former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, chairman of the committee that prepared the council's study.
Children need to be taught how to make wise choices on the Internet, and parents need to supervise them, the report stressed.
Up to now an area that has largely been neglected is the importance of parents, librarians and others in equipping children to go on the Internet, Thornburgh said at a briefing.
Parents and grandparents have an obligation to educate themselves about the Internet so they can assist children and supervise them, he added.
Panel member Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago said that while Internet screening filters and law enforcement can help protect children, "overreliance on those methods will lead to a false sense of security.
The study was welcomed by Judith F. Krug, director of the office for intellectual freedom of the American Library Association.
She said the findings "confirm ALA's view that protecting children online is complex and the solutions demanded are also complex as well as varied."
"I am particularly pleased to see that filters are not touted as the only solution, nor even the best solution," she added. "If you educate children you are developing an internal filter that is going to remain with them throughout their life."
The study comes as a three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia is weighing the constitutionality of a law requiring public libraries to install pornography-blocking software on their computers.
Yesterday, members of Congress, angry at the Supreme Court for striking down parts of an anti-child pornography law last month, proposed legislation they hope will succeed in banning computer simulations of teen-agers or children having sex.
Congress asked the National Research Council to study the problem of Internet pornography in 1998.
The NRC report says that while only a part of the material on the Internet is inappropriate for children, "that small fraction is highly visible and controversial."
The study estimated that, worldwide, there are about 400,000 for-pay adult Internet sites, out of more than 2 billion publicly accessible Web pages.
While most of the debate concerning the Internet has focused on commercial sites, there are many other sources of sexual material, including person-to-person file exchanges, unsolicited e-mail, Web cameras and conversations in chat rooms.
"Solutions that focus only on commercial sources will therefore not address the entire problem," the panel pointed out.
"The fact that children can sometimes see and even sometimes seek out images of naked people is not new," the study noted.
Internet use is harder for adults to supervise, the study said, and sexually explicit material can find its way onto children's computer screens without them seeking it out.
Since many of the sources are based in other countries, it is difficult for the United States to find ways to regulate them, the study noted.
While so-called filtering programs that block access based on certain words or other information have become popular, they inevitably make mistakes, blocking some sites they shouldn't and letting through others that are inappropriate.
Children need to be taught how to make wise choices about how they behave on the Internet. The panel said an analogy could be drawn with children and swimming pools.
"Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim."
Among the potential approaches listed:
- Allowing access only to Web pages that have already been checked and found acceptable.
- Blocking inappropriate material with filtering software.
- Warning the child about explicit material and suggesting he or she choose something better.
- Monitoring minors' Web activity and imposing a penalty if they are caught visiting such sites.
- Educating the child about reasons not to view explicit material and building their sense of responsibility.
- Making it harder for minors to find explicit materials or making access to such material more cumbersome and inconvenient.
- Helping children cope with the exposure to inappropriate material they will probably encounter at least occasionally.
The National Research Council is a part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.
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