Let us first be positive about the Internet. The very fact that it exists represents a marvel of cooperation among computer science experts and leaders in education, government and industry. It is a good example of mankind’s inventive genius.
The Internet crosses all national borders, offering seemingly unending possibilities and benefits to people worldwide. Statistics show that about 655 million people use the Internet. The numbers are growing daily, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
What would eventually become known as the Internet was originally created in the late 1960s to share academic information; its use was largely restricted to colleges and universities. As the concepts behind the Internet and computer technologies developed, so did understanding of the commercial aspects of the Internet. In fact, it was the business sector that accelerated the Internet’s rapid development. The falling price of personal computers, coupled with the successful promotion and marketing of Internet use, has put the power of the Net into the hands of the masses.
The frenzied rush to access the information superhighway has made the Internet an accepted part of everyday life. It is mainstream. Like so many other technologies, the Internet is here to stay.
People are involved in countless activities on the Internet. They buy and sell anything from clothes to automobiles to real estate. They educate themselves by doing research and by taking elementary, secondary or college classes online. Individuals can also read this magazine online. Mostly, people communicate—instantly. Users from opposite ends of the globe are able to chat online, in real time, at little cost.
Obviously, people use the Internet for much more than what is described here, and therein lies some of its greatest danger. We must become more informed about the Internet’s dangers.
The reality is that, for all of its benefits, the Internet presents some serious problems for society in general and families in particular. To date, most articles discussing the Internet have focused on either the business or technological impacts of the Internet. Few have discussed the social impacts. But now experts are becoming more aware of the societal impacts of the Net—both positive and negative.
Teens are one of the largest groups of users on the Net. Therefore teenagers are among those who are potentially most negatively impacted by its use. We must come to see that through the Internet an awesome power for good and evil has been put into the hands of our children. Some parents often boast about how their child can manipulate a computer. Only a few recognize that children lack the maturity and sense of responsibility to handle such power.
Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, concerned about the future development of computer technology, has stated, “I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals” (Wired, April 2000).
Technology nearly always outpaces our ability to deal with the changes it brings. The Internet has changed us and is still changing us—and not just in the way we do things. Unfortunately, we are coming to understand its negative impacts only after we have widely accepted them.
But to simply look back and lay blame will not help us deal with the problems it presents. We must come to know that some of the concepts behind the Internet hold the key to understanding how to deal with its dangerous defects. Unless we recognize the flawed concepts behind the Internet and fix them, its problems will continue to haunt us and will grow worse.
Accelerated Information Exchange
One thought-provoking book dealing with the social impacts of the Internet is Next: The Future Just Happened, by Michael Lewis. This contributing writer for New York Times Magazine looked, through first-hand interviews, at the effects of the Internet on ordinary people that had become caught up in some extraordinary events because of the Net. He was shocked to find, at the center of the controversies, teenagers—quiet, unassuming, highly intelligent teenagers. What they did on the Internet is mind-blowing.
Early in his book, Lewis makes two overall observations that give clues into the inherent problems of the Internet. He states, “It is wildly disruptive to speed up information, and speeding up information was not the only thing the Internet had done. The Internet had made it possible for people to thwart all sorts of rules and conventions. It wasn’t just the commercial order that was in flux. Many forms of authority were secured by locks waiting to be picked.” Think deeply about that. The Internet has accelerated the exchange of information and provided the means for individuals to thwart rules, conventions and authorities. The bottom line is, the Internet has upset an established order in society.
Essentially, the information superhighway has opened up roads to rebellion.
Lewis’s assertion that it is “wildly disruptive to speed up information” is important to consider. Of course, one of the Internet’s primary uses, to share information as quickly as possible, has been accomplished in a spectacular way. With the right computer hardware and software, encyclopedic amounts of information can be transferred between points anywhere in the world instantaneously. Any knowledge gained can be knowledge immediately available to everyone. This technological achievement has revolutionized every facet of our society. It has tied the world together in a way that would make dead dictators jealous! Yet, can we see the wildly disruptive danger in all this?
Concern over the potential perils of instant communication between humans is not new. It is nearly as old as man himself. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel is a perfect example. Knowing both mankind’s inventive genius and appetite for violence, God saw the downside to the instant exchange of ideas among human minds apart from His Holy Spirit. Looking at the Tower of Babel, God said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen. 11:6).
Although the Tower of Babel was an act of defiance against God’s authority, He was mostly concerned about what man would do with unrestrained human communication and knowledge production, and how it would impact human imagination. Within the confines of the natural laws of the universe, what man conceives, man can accomplish! Because of our flawed nature, uniting human talent is perilous. God knew this and prevented man from potentially destroying himself earlier than God’s plan would allow. He restricted man’s ability to rapidly communicate shared knowledge by introducing a multitude of languages.
Can’t we conclude that the Internet has undone what God did?
Certainly, delivering massive amounts of information to balanced minds can be a wonderful thing. But giving massive amounts of information to dangerous minds will lead to disaster.
Since the 1960s, mankind’s fund of knowledge has increased dramatically—and, at the same time, so have society’s evils. The knowledge we are producing is not solving our fundamental problems. Through computer technology, including the Internet, we are adding to our knowledge at a highly accelerated rate. Can we make the connection that society’s problems are speeding up just as fast? We should all be alarmed!
Besides speeding up the exchange of information, Lewis tells us that the Internet allows individuals to “thwart all sorts of rules and conventions”—and “authority.” The full impact of this statement is far-reaching. It gives crystal-clear insight into the dangers lurking on the Internet.
From its creation, experts guided the development of the Internet so that it would be fiercely democratic. They demanded that it be self-governed and self-monitored. It was feared that too much government regulation would impede its progress. A free-exchange communication system without national boundaries is foundational to the belief that no individual should be denied access to the Net because of political ideology or other reasons.
This all sounds great, philosophically. But what has developed is a worldwide network with no boundaries period. Being self-monitored and self-governed has actually come to mean practically no monitoring or no governance. The Internet has therefore encouraged lawlessness.
The growing phenomenon of Internet crime has been made especially easy because of its limited regulation and controls. Steps are now being taken to govern the Internet at both the national and international level. Unfortunately, regulations and laws cannot be written fast enough to stay ahead of the Internet crime wave. Because of possible technical complications, as well as international legal and political issues, enforcing these laws is often impossible.
As computer technologies increase in sophistication, so do the criminals’ abilities. Law enforcement agencies, understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the problem, are having an increasingly difficult job catching and prosecuting such criminals. Although there are valiant attempts and some progress being made, the Internet crime problem is growing.
Criminals have used the Internet to carry out the obvious crimes like stealing credit card numbers, which sometimes results in individuals helping themselves to other people’s checking and linked savings accounts. But theft is only one of the abuses of the Internet.
The fastest-growing business on the Internet is pornography. It is expected that this year $3 billion will be spent—by adults and minors—in accessing “adult content” on the Net. If this were not evil enough, the sale and distribution of child pornography is also at an all-time high.
Because the Internet allows anonymity, sexual predators are able to assume false identities and enter the chat rooms of teenagers, encouraging unsuspecting youths to meet with them.
Because of the sheer vastness of the Internet, which hosts billions of websites, these types of crimes are hard to detect. Google, one of the top search engines serving the Internet, connects 3 billion webpages to its engine alone; yet no search engine in existence can possibly search all available sites. Although the real number is not known, it is estimated that there are at least 40 million porn sites. Law enforcement officials believe there could be millions of child pornography sites on the Worldwide Web. This is apart from the avenues of newsgroups and e-mail that can also be used for such purposes.
To track down, prosecute and jail a child pornographer is a daunting task. Why? If American authorities do discover the site of a child pornographer, what if the individual is located in another country? It then becomes a matter of international law, which can often mean an international nightmare. Even within the U.S., pornography laws vary from state to state. What about the differences internationally? What could be illegal in the U.S. could be perfectly legal in another country. There is rising tension internationally over which nation’s laws should govern the Internet. The Internet will remain a legal challenge for years to come.
Into Hands of Children
Another major way the Internet allows individuals to “thwart all sorts of rules and conventions” and “authority” is related to the fact that it has decentralized the control of information. The sources of information on the Net are endless—but no authorities or organized structures control the information. In essence, the Internet has taken the control of information away from the insiders and transferred it to the outsiders. Power has shifted from the center to the fringe. Control that used to look like a pyramid has been flattened to look like a pancake. It is the outsiders that are gaining control.
For example, the technical information for making bombs used to be held secure by scientists developing such weapons. But with the Internet, that information is now available for instant download to anybody—including teenagers. Children are able to learn in a matter of minutes how to make a bomb at home. In a similar vein, children can also learn harmful things about drugs and sex.
Lewis brings out in his book what several very bright teenagers did with information they gained while using the Internet. He makes considerable mention of Jonathan Lebed, a New Jersey 15-year-old who made news headlines several years ago when he created considerable chaos in the stock market. Under a fictitious identity, this teen became a major player in the market. When authorities uncovered Lebed’s activities, it turned the stock trading world upside down. Although the Securities and Exchange Commission is still not quite sure how he did it, he was able to take money from a savings bond and amass a small fortune by manipulating the market. It is still unknown how many businesses may have been harmed by this teen’s activities.
Lewis also recounts the story of Marcus Arnold, a 15-year-old who portrayed himself as a law student and offered free legal advice to thousands on the Internet. What is truly amazing is that under an assumed identity he became the number-three-rated expert in criminal law on www.askme.com. Many people with serious legal problems even sent court documents to his home for review. Legal professionals could not believe what Arnold had pulled off.
The potential harm Marcus Arnold could have caused others is staggering. Think of the dangerous possibilities for any other crafty teen. Will one pretend to be a psychologist, or a doctor?
The truth we must come to recognize is that the Internet has taken the power and authority once reserved for adults and given it to youth. Many adults cannot see this—yet. However, many teens and young adults see the power of the Internet and fully intend to exploit it.
One teen told Lewis, “We’re out to make a network that benefits us all and isn’t governed or monitored or censored by anybody else, just us, and we’re in control of the network.” This 14-year-old boy created the means to share music and novels without using an Internet central server when Napster was shut down. Essentially, he helped create a network on the fringe of the Internet. Those linked into this network can operate outside of all intellectual property laws.
Lewis relates in his book that the parents of the teens he interviewed knew very little about computers or the Internet. Because of the adult’s lack of knowledge of new technology, the child became the parent when it came to using a computer. Authority was turned upside-down.
Most parents buy computers for their children for educational purposes. Certainly the computer is a great educational tool. Children quickly adapt to it. Studies show that adults generally do not. Of course, we want our children to learn all they can. But as parents, we should learn right along with them.
All the parents of the teens involved in extraordinary situations on the Internet knew relatively little about computers or what their child was actually doing on the Internet. The teens involved spent countless hours on the Net. Their parents didn’t monitor them. When Lewis showed up to interview one teen, the mother asked, “Has my son done something illegal?” She was totally in the dark about her child’s activities.
The Internet is a powerful tool that can be used for good or evil. Even if new laws and more effective controls are implemented, in this present world there will always be those working against and around any such laws.
The most effective way to ensure that the Internet is used for your child’s good is for you—the parents—to take control at home. This means that you must not only watch over your child’s Internet activities, you must regulate Internet use. Of course this will present a significant challenge to most parents. Why? Many adults tend to avoid computers because they lack knowledge about them. To protect our children, we must change our fearful and insecure attitudes toward computers. Parents who purchase a computer and provide Internet access for a child have the responsibility to learn how to use a computer and the Internet.
Some parents, made aware of the dangers of the Internet through unfortunate experiences, are installing monitoring software known as spyware or snoopware. Employing a remote and undetectable computer (usually from a parent’s work location), these programs provide a line-by-line record of Internet activities, revealing sites visited and records of incoming and outgoing chats. This can be extremely helpful in determining if a youth is visiting porn or other undesirable sites—or being drawn into a meeting with a sexual predator.
Be aware that these programs are new and still underdeveloped. A bright teen can find a way around them. Your personal involvement is the only effective way to know what is happening on your home computer.
Liberals, especially in the United States, cry about the privacy rights of teens and youth. But do we want teen privacy at the cost of teen crime? Parents, you have rights, too. You have the duty to make sure your children aren’t engaged in wrong activities—and that gives you the right to view all e-mails and conversations taking place in chatrooms and to know which sites your teens frequent. Parents have the right to control the amount of time a youth spends on the Internet. Of course, once a relationship of trust is built, only occasional monitoring may be necessary.
Some parents will limit a child’s telephone time but will not limit time on the Internet. The logic is that more computer time equals more education. But the problem with that thinking is, many teens use extra hours on the Net merely for correspondence and fun.
The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, N.Y., and other colleges across the country have studied the effects of Internet use on student performance. It has been uncovered that many students who use the Internet for long hours also flunk out of school. After thorough investigation, the reason became abundantly clear: Valuable study time was wasted on Internet surfing, idle talk in chatrooms and playing multi-user computer games. These students, known as “Internet vampires” among college guidance counselors, often stayed on the Internet all night long, then slept through the day, missing classes and other vital educational interaction. Do we see that lots of Internet time can equal no education or dangerous education? Some colleges monitor student time on the Internet to prevent student failure. What about you? Do you know how long your child stays on the Internet?
Parents must not fear to use their God-given authority. Yet that is precisely the problem with computers, the Internet, our modern family crisis and society in general. With the support of liberal adults, children have bullied their way into positions of authority. The Internet has provided children a great measure of independence, making them fearless of authority.
Some parents have allowed their children to lock them out of their bedrooms. Parents have also allowed their children to lock them off their computers. These situations would never have happened just several decades ago; they should not be happening now. Knowing the power of the Internet, this is a formula for disaster. Experts believe that the tragedy at Columbine High may have been prevented if more was known about the contents of the teens’ e-mails.
We are a generation that has overindulged our children with things, freedoms and independence they do not have the maturity to handle. If we do not regain control, we will pay an even bigger price than Columbine High.
Sign of the Times
The misuse and abuse of power and authority on the Internet is a symptom of our very sick Western society. The Internet allows adults and children to skirt around authority, because that is the kind of society we want—no rules, no regulations and no laws! Yet, we are always shocked at the results when they come crashing down on us.
The Prophet Isaiah saw our modern problem with authority and its disastrous results coming thousands of years ago: “And the people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbor: the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honorable. … As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths” (Isa. 3:5, 12). The truth in these verses should motivate every parent and every leader to consider our ways. When people—families or nations—reject authority, oppression is always the result. These verses specifically warn that our children will oppress us. The Internet, if not governed properly, provides just one more means for our children and others to do so.
Let’s be warned. It’s time to wake up to reality. The Internet has the makings to be a weapon in the hands of high-tech insurgents. All of its good can be turned to great evil. Do we have the wisdom to do something about it? It is not too late to close down the roads to rebellion. The choice is ours.