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Blaming the Net for a young girl's murder

John Dickinson says the strangling death of a 13-year-old who hung around chat rooms looking for sex on the Internet is bound to raise calls for further automation of parental controls on the Internet. But will it really help?

The abuse and murder of a child are devastating events.

Such crimes alarm the community in which they occur, and they are crimes for which a perpetrator ought rightly to be captured and punished. When the abuse or death of a child happens because of interactions carried out over the Internet, the online community--our community--must examine itself and its infrastructure closely. If there's something wrong that has allowed such horrible things to take place, then we have to fix it.

Christina Long was a 13-year-old girl from Danbury, Conn., who hung around chat rooms on the Internet. She was interested in relationships with older men and even published suggestive pictures of herself on personal Web sites in order to entice such men to have sex with her.

Christina was strangled to death last week by a man she met in a Web chat room. Although the circumstances of the crime are still under investigation, her alleged murderer was a 25-year-old man who also hung around chat rooms on the Internet. He was someone who liked to have sex with young girls, and who apparently met and had sex with Christina on several occasions.

Was there anything the Internet community could have done to prevent the murder of Christina Long? If you take a minute to think about the composition of our community, things are bound to get nice and muddy.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't think hard about finding an answer. Christina Long was a member of this community, and so was her murderer. So, for that matter, is the provider of the chat room where they hung out. The circle could also be extended to include Christina's parents and the family of her assailant.

The Internet is not a unique medium when it comes to presenting sexually explicit visual or other types of content to children.
But how far should the boundaries of collective responsibility extend?

Many Internet service providers and Internet content providers offer so-called adult controls. Unfortunately, all those controls really do is prevent Internet users from viewing pornographic pictures and text that are housed on thousands of Web sites. They do nothing to prevent a child's entry into chat rooms. They do nothing to monitor what is discussed in those chat rooms. They do nothing about interactions that occur between children or between children and adults through e-mail correspondence or via bulletin boards. Finally, they do nothing to prevent kids from publishing sexually explicit material on the personal Web sites provided by many of those same ISPs.

The Internet is not a unique medium when it comes to presenting sexually explicit visual or other types of content to children. Movies have been presenting sexual material to children for years despite--or maybe because of--a rating system that metes it out in various doses to different age groups.

Television and radio contain increasingly large amounts of sexually explicit material, as do magazines and newspapers. Except for the movie-rating system, which virtually disappears from use when a movie goes to videotape, DVD and television distribution, and for television's much-maligned and not widely used V-Chip, there are no controls that prevent children from exposure to such content.

What's more, children's exposure to sexual inducements in chat rooms, on bulletin boards and in e-mail correspondence cannot be controlled unless we start censoring e-mail and bulletin-board content and shut down chat rooms altogether. None of that seems likely and none of that may even be legal under the First Amendment.

And how can we establish controls that prevent 13-year-old kids from placing erotic pictures of themselves on personal Web sites?

Pedophiles have been preying on youngsters for a long time and will continue to do so no matter what. The Internet is just another way to get in touch with them.
Some years ago, just as the Internet was getting off the ground, a friend of mine noticed that his pre-teen daughter was logged in to a chat room and that one of the people chatting with her asked her to take off her blouse. He asked me how that could happen, and what I would do about it. I suggested that he ask his daughter instead of me because that's the only sort of conversation that can prevent such activities from taking hold and reaching their ultimate destination.

Parents are the only members of the Internet community that can help here. Whenever I hear about parents of troubled children who say they had no way of knowing what was going on, I have to wonder how they are parenting their children.

I'm not saying that parents should be totally invasive in their children's lives--few adolescents would tolerate that. But parents have to at least be in close enough touch to know that a child is about to go off the end of a cliff.

Christina Long might not have been murdered if the Internet did not exist, though I'm not 100 percent sure about that. Pedophiles have been preying on youngsters for a long time and will continue to do so no matter what. The Internet is just another way to get in touch with them.

Will further automation of parental controls on the Internet help? The answer is no. We can't automate parenting any more than we can legislate parenting. That job falls to mom and dad.