Some kids don't know much about pornography until they find it on the Internet - at the public library.
The issue recently caused a stir in Boston, when officials at the Boston Public Library admitted they had no way of keeping children from stumbling onto X-rated sections of the Internet on library computers. Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino last week ordered the city to install software on library computers to filter out "adult-only" information. But some groups say parents will need to take steps of their own to make the World Wide Web safer for children.
"It's a powerful culture out there, and some kids are more vulnerable than others," says Karen Jo Gounaud, founder of the Family Friendly Libraries group in Springfield, Va. "At some point it's up to the individual to make choices, but it makes it harder for everyone if libraries are not cooperating with the communities they serve."
Some librarians argue that it is impossible to watch every child. Many, including officials in the American Library Association in Washington, say that restricting adult Web sites could be the first step toward a cyberspace book burning.
But even before the constitutional issues are resolved, parents in a growing number of cities, including Oklahoma City, Columbus, Ohio, and Orlando, Fla., are taking matters into their own hands.
The weapon of choice for many groups is software that blocks unwanted Web sites on home or office computers. Some computer programs keep a running list of news groups and Web sites that are deemed to have high levels of pornographic or violent content, racism, and even those that promote alcohol use and gambling. Others allow parents to specifically list which sites their children can use.
The software approach has its limits, however, and some children get around these obstacles by tapping into the library's computer from home, says Bob Anderson, founder of Oklahomans for Children and Families in Oklahoma City. But even in such cases, parents have recourse. If parents suspect the local library or another Web-provider is providing their children with cyberporn, Mr. Anderson says, they can "turn it over to law enforcement."
Last year, Anderson used this hard-nosed method to persuade the University of Oklahoma to dump adult material found on the campus Web provider. He showed the president pictures of bestiality and child pornography that had come from the campus computer, noted that they may be illegal images, and said he intended to tell the police, district attorney, and FBI.
"The next morning," Anderson recalls, "the president met with his lawyers at 8, met his computer people at 9, and by 10 a.m., they had dropped 100 adult news groups."
Parents bear the ultimate responsibility for their children's welfare, Gounaud admits, "and they should train their children to make unpopular choices. But I don't care how disciplined a child is. It's up to [society] not to unduly tempt that child."