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Delights and Dangers of the Internet

Delights and Dangers of the Internet

"The Internet is like being in another world- you can pretend to be everything you ever wanted to be. There are no rules and no sense of time. In one hour you can tell each other all about yourselves. It's so interactive- question and answer and so quickly. No limits." Exhilaration was the expression of a 49-year-old divorced male gynecologist with the password "lady's doc."

"It's so safe. In my own den, without dressing up or driving, I chatted for hours to so many women. We laughed, told jokes, shared fantasies and had fun. No one was trying to get laid, but there were lots of sexual comments. I never could talk to my wife. Here we each took turns listening to the other- funny saying listen when it's reading. I couldn't believe it was 2 a.m. when I checked my watch- four hours on-line."

His new computer toy delighted him. It is "the best dating tool ever. Believe me, in three years I've tried many ads, clubs, groups." He found that four of the many "chat room" women he contacted lived within a few miles. He met with each. "They all fizzled." Why? "Two were much older than they sounded. One was a huge lady, twice my height and size. The fourth was obnoxious; I couldn't wait to leave, I faked a beeper call." But he still thought it was all highly entertaining, even six months later. The novelty and frequency of use later lessened, "like my CB and cellular phone."

Lost Innocence?

Some psychologists are studying teens and how they use the Internet. Sherry Turkle, for Life on the Screen, interviewed 300 teens, most of whom said they knew much more about the Internet than either of their parents. Some teens realize they need to be "cybersmart" since exploitation, taunting, teasing and put-downs are all possible. "I was called 'chicken' and 'dud' when I did not give my phone number or address."

Other teens totally deny danger: "You can't get pregnant on the Net or catch AIDS or get raped or killed." Another said, "The language is awful, but it's kind of exciting to see such a lot of it and to write smut. I hear obscenities at school all the time, kids think it's cool or big stuff. I feel scared, yet weird to write bad words, or sexy talk. It's sort of dangerous. I'd never do it face-to-face, but I can get away with it because I'm sort of invisible. Then I worry whether they can trace me. I know enough not to give out my password, my phone number or my address. That would be dumb." For this 14-year-old girl, cybersex was fun.

An anxious mother called me. Her 13-year-old had been "chatting" to a man in jail several times, mostly about sex and love, pretending she was 18. She had given him their home address and phone number. An adult male voice called the home that morning for Belinda (the 13-year-old, who was at school) to say their friendship on the Net was great, could she visit him? Her mother was upset and had called the police, who told her they could do nothing. It was not a crime to telephone. The prisoner had told Belinda the truth about being jailed, and that he was due for parole within six months. The parents were concerned he might come to their home. Would a VChip or Parental Control insert have prevented this? Probably not.

Human impulsivity, youthful ignorance, adventure search, learning the limits of this new medium are all variables as yet to be considered. Could he be dangerous? No one can answer that question yet. The parent must educate Belinda about truth, the consequences of lying, why people go to jail, about potential harm to herself, family or the home.

An 8-year-old boy in a Chicago classroom downloaded hard-core explicit pictures on his computer to the teacher's horror and the giggling of some of his classmates who all wanted to know how he did it so they could do the same. The teacher insists it was not an accident as he claims. The principal agrees. So far the boy has not repeated the feat.

A 15-year-old girl from the suburbs, on the Dean's list, stable, hardworking, with a steady boyfriend, received a dozen roses "from your Boston lover." Within days she told her parents she would sleep over with a girlfriend but instead met a 21-year-old woman at an airport hotel. The next day she returned home from school to say she had broken up with her boyfriend and has elected to become a lesbian activist. Both parents insisted on counseling. The Internet friendship continued.

The mother called, upset because the selected social worker therapist for the teen considered her daughter to have a "definite homosexual identity" and will not discuss any therapy details with her. Mother was advised to request some parent conjoint (family) sessions with the same therapist to improve parent-child understanding. Impulsive experimentation or lifelong commitment? In 1996 some parents are adding Web worries to their list of potential dangers to their children.

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