Internet chat rooms are a useful public space for people to socialize or share common interests. But they can also be a danger to children whose identities or locations are given out or discovered.
In June 2000, a federal study revealed nearly 1 in 5 teenagers who regularly use the Internet said they'd received an unwanted sexual solicitation or approach on the Net in the previous year. In 65 percent of those instances, the youth "met" the solicitor in a chat room. In 24 percent, the "meeting" occurred through instant messages.
Most of the solicitation appeared targeted at teens aged 14 to 16, with nearly half of "aggressive" solicitations (an attempt to continue contact by phone, regular mail, or in person) coming from other, older juveniles.
With those numbers in mind, the Microsoft Corporation deserves praise for its announcement last week that it will close down its free Internet chat rooms on Oct. 14. That should at least reduce the growing number of unwanted sexual approaches online.
But any praise should be measured. No doubt, Microsoft faced a losing financial proposition in free chat rooms. The cost of monitoring its hundreds of thousands of chats just wasn't worth the effort. And it certainly doesn't need the big lawsuits it might attract by offering a pathway for possible sex crimes.
Other big Internet service providers, such as Yahoo and Lycos, should be more vigorously monitoring their many free chat rooms. (America Online offers extensive chat rooms, but mostly for those who pay the base subscription.)
At the least, the Microsoft decision should serve as a reminder to parents to more closely supervise their children's computer use. Parents' close attention to their children's activities is the best defense against sexual predators online or on the street.