Remote Control Parenting

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; 9:55 AM

America's parents are relying more than ever on software filters to block what their children can see on the Internet, according to a study published Thursday afternoon.

Fifty-four percent of families that have at least one teenager living at home and have Internet access reported that they use filters, up from just over 41 percent in December 2000, according to the report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. That translates to 12 million families now, compared to 7 million in 2000.

In one observation that should please parents, the study found that only about a third of teenagers who use the Internet at home think their parents monitor their online activity, but almost two-thirds of parents who responded to the study said they check up on their children's activities after they have been online. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, but parents appear to trust boys a bit less than girls. According to the study, "Sixty-eight percent of parents of boys compared to 55% of parents of girls say they have checked to see what Web sites their child has visited."

The study also showed that parents who use Internet filtering software to police their children tend to be Internet users themselves, and that more moms (59 percent) report the use of filtering software than dads (49 percent).

The survey comes as parents, lawmakers and the Internet industry continue seeking ways to shield children from inappropriate online content. Past efforts to pass nationwide laws to restrict access to X-rated content online ran afoul of the Constitution, and a current law that would require Web site operators to find ways to keep children from visiting their sites is still awaiting judicial review.

The fact is, there are plenty of things to read, hear and see within easy reach online that parents might consider inappropriate for their children. More important is the danger posed by sex predators who use the Internet to run down underaged prey. News reports about the arrest of these predators is welcoming in the sense that they're getting caught, but also troubling because of the widespread danger that we see more clearly with each passing day.

When parents use filters, they are taking a necessary step that is part of a strong online defense. It includes, among other simple ideas, forcing kids to use the computer in a supervised part of the home like, say, the living room.

But the fact is that total supervision is impossible. Our parents couldn't stop us from sneaking smokes, joyriding or playing hooky when we were their wards. Just because the Internet is still an alien world to many parents, that doesn't mean the scenario is any different. Amanda Lenhart, the Pew study's author, said as much to me when I suggested that it wasn't such a news flash that 65 percent of parents and 64 percent of teenagers say that "teens do things online that they wouldn't want their parents to know about." The Internet, she said, is simply reflecting "the age-old conflict between parents and kids."

Here is one other item to consider about Internet filters. They certainly block inappropriate content, but it seems that some parents are relying on them a little too heavily. The San Jose Mercury News broke that angle out high up in its story about the Pew study, reporting that filtering use has increased while parents' personal efforts to monitor what children do have held steady. Lenhart told the Merc that filters are an in loco parentis tool for parents who can't be there to monitor their kids constantly.

With filters, we get protection -- to some extent. Some material will continue to slip through, and some material that shouldn't be blocked will be. In the end, no software can substitute for good old-fashioned parenting.

That's the news from a page-one feature in the Wall Street Journal today about how the mega-corporations that run the radio station are trying to beat back the encroaching phenomena of iPods, satellite radio and other ways of listening to music that people seem to find more scintillating than someone bellowing through the speakers (with heavy reverb) "103-MINUTES-OF-COMMERCIAL-FREE-ROCK-BLOCK-FRIDAYS!!!!!!"

Jack FM has one of the more appealing ideas in the works, the Journal reported: "Previously, like most stations, 105.1 let computer scheduling programs pick the songs from a library of 300-400 titles, with the same 30-40 songs playing most of the time. Now the station is going against the grain of the past two decades in radio, more than tripling the number of song titles played on any given day. With more than 1,200 songs on the playlist, most songs get played only once every few days, rather than several times a day. Program director Mike O'Reilly and his assistants handpick the music and the order in which they are played."

Other ideas in the mix include cutting back commercials (Clear Channel), selling stations (Viacom) and taking a few cues from digital radio's playlist: "Many stations are trying to program iPod-style mixes of music -- often with the same 'Jack' monicker used in Kansas City. Jack, a format developed by Canadian company Rogers Media, a unit of Rogers Communications Inc., is licensed to eight U.S. stations and has spawned about a dozen unlicensed imitators."

I'd offer them my suggestion, knowing that they would pay me millions of dollars by way of thanks, but since I'm a nice guy I'll give it away in three words: Play Better Music.

The ATF for several years has maintained that criminal groups use illegal cigarette sales, including those made on the Internet, to fund terrorist activities. Many state attorneys general are burned up because people who buy cigarettes online often avoid paying tobacco taxes. Smokers still will be able to use checks, money orders and other forms of payment to order their death sticks

"Jane Serreino, 43, ... and Beth Brown, 29, of Bayonne claim they were sexually harassed by their supervisor, William Bevilaqua, while working in a pension benefit department at William M. Mercer Inc. They also claim the department head, Richard DeFrehn, ignored their complaints about Bevilaqua," the Newark Star-Ledger reported. "Serreino previously had told the Superior Court jury of incidents in which Bevilaqua hired a stripper for a company Christmas luncheon in December 1999 and another where he allegedly put purple thong underpants on his head and marched around the office. She also said he touched her arms and shoulders and made explicit sexual comments to her."

But the best defense is a good offense, as we also often hear: "Defense lawyer Craig Benson yesterday used Serreino's own off-color e-mails forwarded from her office computer to imply that she enjoyed sexually explicit jokes and was not averse to sharing them with her colleagues. Over the objections of plaintiffs' attorney Kathleen DalCortivo, Benson showed the jury large posters of several sexually themed e-mails and read others aloud. Questioned repeatedly, Serreino said that she did not find the e-mails offensive and also forwarded some to her mother-in-law and a niece."

Seems like they could have used filters in Serreino's office.

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