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Web snares children, predators and parents

Wednesday, January 09, 2002

We lack even the spiritual bromides for someone like Scott Tyree, who is alleged to have lured a 13-year-old Crafton Heights girl to his Virginia playpen via the Internet, only to have her freed by FBI operatives when a Florida Web surfer enabled a fortuitous cyberspace ricochet after seeing the girl's image on the Web site of One of America's Great Newspapers.

And this means, what? In the far-flung league of twisted cyber predators, the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away?

The world's aspiring sex slave owners, and particularly its accomplished dungeon masters, are not going to be helped very much by converted platitudes from the civilized culture, but that's not our focus for this rant anyway. There always will be, whether haunting the stalls of a rest stop along the interstate, slumped in the doorway in a downtown alley or floating dimensionless in a corner of one of your daughter's familiar chat rooms, sexual bogeymen. It is a statistical certainty.

But in that last sample manifestation, we often find baby-boomer parents overmatched by the often silent collision of psychosexual disease and rampaging technology. Even Dr. Victor Strasburger's helpful text, "Getting Your Kids to Say 'No' in the '90s When You Said 'Yes' in the '60s (Survival Notes for Baby Boom Parents)" is suddenly archaic. "Internet" doesn't even appear in its index. Got your inhalants and your intrauterine devices. Those were good old days.

We thought we knew the dangers of mass media, having grown up on them. Even as we sit in front of it 30 or 40 hours a week or more, boomers know to excoriate TV to their children. Everybody knows what a menace the tube is. It doesn't take a sociologist to figure out that if I'm talking face-to-face with my teen-agers for only five minutes and Homer Simpson has 'em for 30, we can't expect the best of outcomes. (Or, in my case, they might be better off.)

But to a generally hopeful generation that always embraced technology (we are the generation that fueled the never-ending mind-bending technological sprint of the recording industry, for example), we looked upon the Internet as merely the next big train going somewhere we all ought to go. Who wouldn't put the world at their children's fingertips? The problem is, that includes the part of the world, once safely remote, that wants to get inside our daughters' panties. And instead of shivering in some urban alley in the dead of this winter, he's right there in the warm glow of her bedroom monitor.

"Do you like older men?" he asks eventually. "Does anyone else use your computer? I won't hurt you."

Such is the bogeyman for the new century. You're 13 and you're pretty and you're cyber-literate, and that's all good except that one minute you're chowing pork and sauerkraut in your parents' dining room and the next you're being restrained in Herndon, Va., waiting for your 38-year-old online "buddy" to hurry home from work and choose a sex toy.

It isn't even startling anymore.

Studies done by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire indicate that 20 percent of kids using the Internet have been solicited for sex, mostly in chat rooms on their home computer. Other studies have shown that 14 percent of boys using the Internet and up to a dizzying 24 percent of girls have met, face to face, with someone they got to know online.

Some of these meetings, obviously, have been fatal. Others immensely unpleasant. A 15-year-old girl in California went out on a date with a college student she met online. Police say that for the majority of that two-hour encounter, the college man whipped her with his belt buckle, pummeled her with his fists and used a knife to try to carve swastikas into her face. She lost a tooth and needed plastic surgery. "He was so nice online," the pitiable thing told police.

The Internet, for all its knowledge-spraying miracles, provides sexual predators with cover they could not ordinarily achieve. Just in the past month, for example, a soccer coach, a policeman, a fireman and even a rabbi have been arrested in various parts of the country. A North Carolina man with the chat room handle of Coache28 told a Virginia detective posing as a 13-year-old girl online that he'd travel to the girl's home for sex.

Teen-agers need some portion of the freedom they crave to grow. Boomer parents who reveled in the sexual freedom and expressive freedoms they helped sculpt 20 and 30 years ago still look for validation through them. Even after Columbine, where teen killers left a cyber trail of explicit murder-intent e-mails, most boomer parents are reluctant to deploy software like Cyber Sentinel, which tracks every monitor image and compares it to a database of sexually explicit sites, or something even tighter that can monitor every keystroke a person makes and produce a report on it without that person's knowledge.

It's very touchy. I say, let freedom ring, but have a chat now and again. In a real room.

Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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