Morality in Media of Massachusetts




Media Outlets




Lisa J. Barstow
Director, External Affairs
Massachusetts Family Institute
Remarks to Morality in Media Event
October 26, 2000

Good evening. I want to thank Morality in Media Massachusetts for hosting this important event and for asking me to help set the stage, if you will, on the importance of making the Internet safer for children.

Let me first say that given the nature of this expansive medium, I do NOT believe you can make the Internet "safe" for children. But I AM confident that the Internet can be made "safer" for children, if policy makers, parents, schools and libraries do the responsible thing and insist on putting child safety first.

So to help set the stage tonight I want to outline some of specific threats against children's safety - threats we at the Massachusetts Family Institute take very seriously. Then, I'll share briefly about MFI's initiatives in response to these dangers.

One of the most prevalent Internet dangers is when adults lure and abduct children via relationships formed over the Net. Let me just walk through a handful of the numerous recent local reports on this issue:

A 42-year old Whitman man was recently arraigned in Ohio after he flew there to allegedly have sex with a young girl he met on the Internet

A 23-year old Salisbury man who repeatedly raped a 12-year old Lowell girl admitted to luring his victims via the Internet. Other of his victims ranged in age from 12-15.

A 14-year old girl from Whitman - again from Whitman - was the victim of stalking and attempted rape by an adult male who concealed his true identity and befriended the girl in a chatroom. He was so fixated on the child that the 29-year old law-school student moved into an apartment blocks from her home just prior to the attack.

A 43-year old Stow man was charged with using the Internet to lure a 13-year old girl into having sex.

And, of course, the tragic murder of 10-year old Jeffrey Curley, who's killer had visited the Website of the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) just hours before the crime occurred.

In a growing number of child sex cases, pedophiles have admittedly fed their evil and criminal desires through pornographic Internet Websites. And while law enforcement officials are rightfully creating bureaus and agencies to investigate cyber crimes, there are relatively few laws on the books today that protect children from dangerous content or people on the Net.

A June 2000 study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that one in five young people who used the Internet regularly were exposed to unwanted sexual solicitation. One-in-four encountered unwanted pornography in the last year. The study went on to say that one in 33 were "aggressively" approached, meaning they were contacted by phone or mail, or given money or gifts in exchange for sexual favors.

What the Center also recognized - based on their past research - is that about 4 in ten children don't report such incidents. So the actual numbers of child sexual stalking are much higher.

Evidence also suggests that younger children, ages 10-13 especially, become severely distressed when they are unwittingly exposed to sexual images or message via the Web.

Another recent case of the destructive and exploitative use of the Internet right here in Massachusetts involves two college students whose Somerville-based Web business allegedly hosted child pornographic sites that victimized boys and girls as young as five years old.

Because of the business owners admitted lax oversight as to who posts material on their service, they said they were not surprised that child porn was found. These Internet entrepreneurs profited by hosting such sites on their service, yet may not be guilty of any crime. The Attorney General's office in investigating.

This case, along with a string of others, highlights the need for law enforcement, business and trade organizations, community leaders, cyber-detectives, parents, educators and librarians to be ever vigilant when it comes to understanding the very real dangers of the Internet and taking meaningful steps to hold all parties accountable for the content they make available.

The Massachusetts Family Institute became increasingly concerned about how, when and where children were accessing the Internet - what they could see and the dangers to which they unwittingly expose themselves. We wanted parents to have a better understanding of Internet threats so they could open a dialogue at home, and establish family practices to safeguard their precious ones.

However, even when parents do a good job of monitoring their children's Web access at home, we knew that there were other venues where their kids may have access to dangerous or prurient materials: Specifically, their local school or library.

The Family Research Council, a pro-family Washington DC policy institute and my organization's affiliate, has published an annual report called, "Dangerous Access" that details hundreds and hundreds of real-life horror stories of children accessing lurid materials at their local libraries.

It further evidences the need for libraries to take a more responsible public role in safeguarding, not only minor children and other library patrons, but also their employees, from sexually-explicit materials that create a hostile learning and working environment - at the taxpayer's expense.

In various cities across the nation, library employees have complained about having to "police" patrons who - in full view - surf to pornographic sites. Patrons often times leave lurid web pages open on the screen at public computer terminals.

Many library leaders nationally, and in Massachusetts, have supported the use of blocking software to protect patrons and employees. But, unfortunately, this is the exception, not the rule.

A case not too long ago at the Thayer Library in Braintree, for example, - brought to light by the Patriot Ledger newspaper - involved a man who would spend hours at the library viewing child pornography.

Employees recognized the man from news report as someone who had been arrested the prior year on child pornography charges. They complained to the library's director about the situation but he would not back down from the library's stated policy not to filter its Internet terminals.

The newspaper's coverage of this situation brought the issue front and center of a local debate. As it turned out, Patriot Ledger readers, responding to an on-line poll, overwhelmingly supported the prospect of public libraries using filters to prevent such incidents in the future.

Its important for parents to know that the American Library Association - the chief industry lobbying group of America's local, public libraries - supports unlimited, unfettered access to all information found on the Net, regardless of age, as a free speech principal. This, however, is inconsistent with responsible public policy and the will of the people.

Earlier this year the Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio, and the Kennedy School of Government released a study that suggested the vast majority of people supported governmental intervention to protect children from harmful Internet content.

So where do we stand in Massachusetts on safeguarding children in our public libraries?

In a recent survey by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners:

99 percent of all Massachusetts libraries offer Internet access,

but only

16 percent of libraries employ filtering software to block out selected content - two-thirds of that 16 percent who filter do so only in children's room terminals.

MFI saw the cases of child victimization rising and made it a strategic priority to help educate families. We believed that when parents broadly were informed of the dangers, they would push for a tidal wave of changes, so that responsible, child-protection policies will be set in motion - locally and nationally.

Last May, the Massachusetts Family Institute, released the Massachusetts Family Guide to Internet Safety. Copies are available on the information table. The Guide is a resource to help educate parents, caretakers, teachers, community leaders and others about what could go wrong when kids surf unsupervised on the Net.

It also provides practical information to help parents understand the medium and set good, enforceable ground rules for Internet use.

We were pleased that Community Newspaper Company partnered with MFI to reproduce the Guide in their parenting publication called "Parent and Baby Journal" and further promoted it in their 120-plus newspapers throughout eastern Massachusetts.

I've also talked with a number of other media outlets on the critical need for parents to be involved and educated on Internet dangers.

MFI received the support of many state legislators who have made the Guide available to their constituents.

It is our hope that through these and other channels, parents will become more aware of how to protect their children. We also urge schools and libraries to develop strict and responsible Internet policies to protect minors from harm.

As a starting point, MFI believes that all school and library computers where any minor child has access should be equipped with filtering software to weed out the most egregious and obscene Websites from a child's view.

Legislation has been introduced at both the federal and state level to integrate filters into public school and library Internet terminals. MFI supports such initiatives. Some well-intended advocacy groups, as well as some school superintendents, do not support such legislation believing it infringes on their right to local control, among other issues.

However, MFI believes it is a necessary first step to create an environment that recognizes Internet dangers and provides a base-line of protection for children against pornography and the thousands of sexual predators lurking on the Net.

The Internet, more than any other forum in history, has heightened the likelihood that children will be victims of direct or indirect sexual assault - by cyberstalkers who threaten their life and well-being; by stumbling onto dangerous, illegal or obscene content that will forever alter a child's view of his or her world; or by Internet entrepreneurs who profit by exploiting them.

As the guardians of our children, we simply must do a better job of recognizing Internet dangers, and holding businesses, libraries, schools and parents accountable to make sure that children can learn and benefit from this remarkable technology without fear of harm.

Tonight's next speakers, Officers Denehy and Rotondi and Dwight Duncan will provide greater detail on what the law and law enforcement can do to help families surf safely.

Thanks for your attention.

Please review our other important information:

By Safety Officer, Laurence J. Rotondi

By Safety Officer, Laurence J. Rotondi

By Safety Officer Laurence J. Rotondi

By Safety Officer Laurence J. Rotondi and Joseph Denehy