Oprah gets in on the act

I always want to hear what Oprah has to say about a particular issue because she has power. A lot of power. So, when I came home early from work and turned on her show, I was excited to see that she was going to talk about online safety. I patiently waited through the Anderson Cooper interview, only to be met with disappointment.

First of all, the “segment” was two three minute bits separated by a commercial break as long as the piece itself. The opener was an update on some adults that had been convicted of rape and other violent and sexual behavior of children. These adults had been apprehended thanks to Oprah viewers. While I am glad that these adults are behind bars facing long sentences, I did not like the implication of leading the online safety piece with this. All these criminals had prior relationships with their victims and lived in the same neighborhoods. Despite all the press about the evil that lurks online, most pedophiles have a prior relationship with their victims. Many are family members. It is important not to lose sight of this fact, lest we succumb to the myth that those who are most dangerous to our children are complete strangers. It hurts to think of the truth, but the fact of the matter is that children who are victimized most likely know their assailant and that assailant is likely a member of, or close to, the family — NOT a stranger from the online world.

Then the actual online safety portion is featured. It consists of a New York Times reporter going online, finding a girl between 13 and 16 who lives in Texas using some unknown search engine (it clearly comes from a social networking site, but is not MySpace, but I can’t identify it), learning her high school and IM screen name and attempting to contact her. He accomplishes this all in 2 and a half minutes and ends his story stating that if he had “ill intentions” he would be at a state where “now I can do whatever I want” [with her].

While it is true that he COULD theoretically go to her high school and kidnap her, this story leaves out the control the girl could have in this situation. Although she made some poor choices by making her high school and IM screen name easily accessible, there are other ways she can foil this man’s “ill intentions.” She can not respond to his IM and even block him from being able to contact her again. If she believed that he was up to no good, she could report him to her ISP or to a cyber tipline. She could tell her parents that some creep tried to contact her and they could call the police. There are many things a child can do to stop predators. I only wish Oprah had focused on what people can do to stop them instead of sensationalizing what could happen if no one did anything.

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Where the control lies

All this talk about how to monitor kids’ internet use is going to become moot pretty soon. According to the LA Times on May 11, MySpace now comes in a cellphone version. Although this feature is an exclusive to a few elite phones produced by a company called Helio, as we all know, it won’t be long before everyone will be able to access this version of MySpace.

And yes, these phones are being aggressively marketed to teens.

What this article brings is an underlying message: It isn’t enough for parents to simply monitor their child’s computer use. Soon it will be necessary to monitor phone use. But then what next? As technology becomes more and more complex it won’t be long before the use of some other device will need monitoring.

It boils down to the need for parents and children to communicate with each other in order to build trust between them. This can only happen if adults become familiar with the world their children live in. Grownups don’t need to — nor should they — adopt youth culture (lest they want to be ridiculed by people of all ages), but they should try to understand it so that they can draw boundaries and set limits based on an educated opinion, not fear or the latest news story or talk show feature. Adults need to ask their children questions and share concerns. Then they need to listen to the other side of the story. The positive aspects of online social networks as seen through youths’ eyes. The best rules are set when all sides of the story are heard.