If anyone needed a reminder that cyberspace is not a place for children to roam at will, a report just delivered to Congress should have provided it. More than 5,000 regular Web users, ages 10 to 17, were surveyed. Nearly 1 in 5 said they had experienced sexual advances online, and a quarter said they'd been sent obscene pictures.
This kind of activity has long been recognized as one of the Web's darkest sides. Law enforcement is alert to catching those who use the Internet either to peddle pornography, or to prey on youngsters in online chat rooms.
The well-publicized arrest earlier this year of a former high-tech executive who tried to arrange a meeting with a 13-year-old girl he'd met online, attested to that alertness. The "girl," in fact, was a FBI agent involved in a sting operation on the Web.
But just how many people are using the technology to indulge debased sexual appetites is impossible to determine. The survey commissioned by Congress, however, points to a major problem.
It's a problem that government can't easily tackle - apart from efforts to crack down on obvious criminality, like trafficking in child pornography. Broad attempts to legislatively ban indecent material on the Web have run afoul of the First Amendment.
The fundamental responsibility to protect children from online sexual advances falls on parents. Most of the incidents reported in the survey, 70 percent, occurred on a home computer.
Practical steps include being aware of the chat rooms used by kids, not keeping computers in children's bedrooms, and reminding kids to exercise the same cautions in meeting people on the Web that they would with strangers on the street.
Honest parent-child talk about using the Web is crucial.
The Internet opens vast opportunities for youngsters to expand their learning and share wholesome interests.
Those positive aspects will be preserved by added family vigilance in avoiding online filth.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society