Once upon a time in the mid-seventies, when I was just a middle-schooler, I had a CB radio. Strictly speaking it belonged to my parents, but it was my idea to buy it and install it in our Chevy Impala, and I was practically the only one in the family who ever went on the air. (My handle, for the record, was "Rocky Road.")
In our age of mobile phones and PDAs, it's hard to recall what a thrill it was to sit in a moving car and communicate with total strangers, usually on the slenderest of pretexts and in what my guide book assured me was authentic truckers' lingo:
Breaker one-nine for information. What's the ten-twenty of a good choke-and-puke near Saratoga?
It was harmless fun, making long car trips less monotonous for everyone, and sometimes yielding useful directions -- the GPS of its day.
Late one summer evening, riding home at the end of vacation with my dad behind the wheel and the rest of the family asleep, I was chatting with an unusually friendly trucker when it became clear that the man had mistaken my still-unbroken, pre-pubescent voice for that of a "beaver." I thought this was pretty funny, and started doing my best to imitate a flirtatious young woman. My interlocutor had just suggested a rest stop where we could meet when my father reached over and switched off the radio.
No doubt the parents of Shevaun Pennington, the 12-year-old English schoolgirl who turned up on Wednesday after running off to Paris with a 31-year-old man, now wish they had done likewise. Shevaun first "met" her traveling companion, a former U.S. Marine and decorated Afghanistan veteran, in an Internet chat room. (Toby Studabaker's family has said that he believed the girl was at least 18 years old.)
While she was still missing, Shevaun's father told the press that his daughter had regularly spent five or six hours a day chatting on the computer in the family's kitchen. Confident that she was communicating with other kids, her parents merely admonished her not to reveal her name, age or address.
Never mind the idiocy of letting a 12-year-old spend six hours a day on a computer, no matter what the reason. After school and sleep, that hardly leaves time for a proper meal, let alone homework. Far more urgently, this case shows the madness of letting children go anywhere near the Internet except with the strictest parental supervision.
Whatever happened to "don't talk to strangers"? I don't think my parents told me anything more often. And this was in a more innocent time, or at least a more naive one. Parents today, especially in the U.S., have never been more anxious about their children's contact with teachers, clergy and other adults in their own communities. Why on earth do they let them communicate in private with people whose identities are a secret? Not to speak of exposing them to an endless stream of explicit pornography.
Forget about kids-only sites. If you were an aspiring child molester, isn't that the first place you would go? Forget about filters, too. Kids are a thousand times swifter than we are at this sort of thing. Count on a bright eight-year-old to hack his way around any system his parents are savvy enough to set up.
The most obvious solution is the one no busy mother or father wants to hear: monitoring all of a young user's online activity, at least into adolescence. But who could possibly manage that? I know I couldn't. In effect, such a policy would mean keeping kids away from the Internet altogether -- which would be fine with me. What, after all, is the rush? My aunt learned to e-mail and surf the Web when she was in her seventies. Even in the information age, teenagers are hardly over the hill.
Of course that won't work either. Even if you lock up the computer, or keep it out of the house entirely, kids will log on at schools, public libraries, Internet cafes and the houses of others. So what's the alternative? However hopeless it seems, the best I can think of is to take up the time-honored refrain: "don't talk to strangers, don't talk to strangers, don't talk to strangers …"