by Lawrence Kelemen
Online dangers and practical responses.
Like most public libraries in the United States, the Central Phoenix Library provides adults and children with Internet access. When Toni Garvey, the chief librarian, recently spotted three separate men and a group of giggling girls viewing pornographic material on the library's terminals, she had no idea how to respond. She says she feels uncomfortable providing such material for the public, but so far Federal courts across the country have ruled that banning the Internet from public institutions or even filtering its contents "offends the guarantee of free speech" and "restricts First Amendment rights." Garvey complains, "For me, this has been one of the most challenging issues of my career. We all want to do the right thing, but it's not clear what the right thing is." 1
Garvey, like most people of conscience, is morally confounded by the technology that links together nearly half a billion people in a "Worldwide Web" -- a global village -- allowing instant, anonymous exchange of uncensored text and images. Anyone in this virtual-metropolis can put anything online, and once it is there anyone can access it.
The Seedier Side of Cyberspace
Like any metropolis, the web has neighborhoods, some safer and some horrific. Unlike any other metropolis, the web lacks a government, laws, or a police force. The only universally acknowledged cyber-crime is the intentional spreading of computer viruses -- infectious software programs that could impair the experience of other cyber-tourists. Beyond this, there are no moral guidelines. A turn down the wrong cyber-street guarantees exposure to information or images at least as corrosive as anything available in the streets of New York, Paris, or Tokyo -- and often even worse.
For example, the web hosts thousands of pornographic sites -- offering material that is as explicit and generally more violent than what is found in print publications 2 -- and these sites are heavily trafficked. In response to academic surveys, 25-50% of men with Internet access admit spending time online viewing explicit material. 3 While most visitors to pornographic sites are married college graduates 4, a Canadian survey reveals that 44% of men who visit these sites admit that they began doing so before age 16. 5 A British survey reported that over half of all word searches on the Internet are aimed at locating pornography. The top eight word searches were all pornography related. 6 Although much of the explicit material available online is free, through fee-per-view services and advertisements the online pornography industry currently generates about $1 billion annually. 7
Researchers explain that it is the web's "Triple-A Engine" -- access, affordability, and anonymity -- that drives the online pornography industry: 8
While men outnumber women 6:1 in their online use of explicit material, women slightly outnumber men when it comes to the "Chat Room" and "Multi-User Domain" (or MUD) 9 -- the cyberspace equivalent of a singles bar. Studies reveal that about 90% of Chat and MUD users form personal relationships; about one-third of these relationships result in a face-to-face meeting; and about a quarter of these relationships evolve into romantic involvements. 10
A large study of American teens just revealed that close to 60% have received an instant message or email from a total stranger, and 63% of those teens who have received such instant messages or emails say they responded but never told their parents. 11 In the last three years there have been several infamous cases of abduction, rape and murder in which the victim was first approached and lured through a Chat or MUD site, instant messaging, or emails. There are, no doubt, many more cases in which Chat, MUD, instant messaging, or email interactions led to psychologically destructive relationships. These are the harsh realities of cyber-street life.
The nature of human psychology is that over-indulgence in one pleasure creates a desire for another, more depraved pleasure, and so forth in a potentially unending downward spiral towards total degradation. In a nightmarish scenario, an upstanding gentleman could thus wake up to find himself on one of the web's many sites explicitly dedicated to facilitating illicit activity. Thousands of sites offer 24/7 online gambling, and researchers say upwards of 15 million people visit these sites annually and leave several billion dollars of their family's funds there. 12 Researchers also report that escorts and prostitutes in most major cities can now be reserved online. There are even special sites for those seeking extramarital affairs and other, more bizarre liaisons.
A Glimpse at the Damage: An Academic Perspective
Recent surveys identify a burgeoning trend of Internet-related divorces. 13 In most of these tragedies, visits to explicit sites, or extramarital relationships forged over the web, destroyed mutual trust and ripped the marriage apart. Sadly, I have seen first-hand in my counseling practice that the Jewish community is not immune to this plague.
In a landmark study, published in American Psychologist, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University examined the amount of time people spent interacting with other family members before and after installation of a computer with Internet access. During the two-year longitudinal study, family interaction declined dramatically, and the drop was directly proportional to the increase in Internet use. Ironically, many study participants justified their increasing time online saying they needed to "stay in touch" with more distant friends and relatives, while they increasingly ignored those they were living with. 14 I hear complaints weekly from spouses, parents, and especially children who feel the Internet has robbed them of their loved-ones.
As Internet involvement increases, so do loneliness and depression -- especially among middle and upper class males. 15 There are many theories about the relationship between Internet use and depression. For example, some researchers argue that productive people have only limited time to develop and maintain their most significant relationships, and moderate-to-heavy Internet use necessarily siphons hours off this precious reservoir, leaving people socially isolated and sad. Other researchers remind us that the mere act of sitting still in front of a computer display can trigger a biochemical chain-reaction that ends in depression. 16
A whole genre of studies describes the damage Internet involvement can wreak on academic performance. Although many parents help their children get online in order to bolster grades, research reveals that more time spent online translates into less time spent reading books and worse study skills. 17 The Internet cultivates impulsive jumping from web page to web page, but real learning requires still concentration. At a large New York university, the dropout rate among freshman rose proportionally as their investment in computers and Internet access increased. 18 Business analysts also note associations between employee Internet access and decreased productivity. 19
The Necessity of Identifying Risk Factors
It is clear that there is a need to protect one's children from the distractions and corrosive elements of the net. Limitations to Internet access, the use of filtering software and pre-filtered Internet providers, placement of computers in highly visible areas of one's home are all good ideas.
Ultimately, restricting Internet access is a necessary but insufficient solution. But what is needed is healing the personality weaknesses that virtually guarantee some individuals will fall victim to Internet temptations. Studies show that those most likely to get into trouble are not deterred by limits on Internet access. Given the net's ubiquitous presence, they will find a way to get online -- at the local public library, if not elsewhere. Therefore, a key challenge to parents and educators is identifying the risk factors and the individuals most at risk.
Researchers describe four pre-existing conditions that put an individual at high risk for getting into trouble on the Internet. 20 They are: lack of family bonds; low self-esteem; inability to express opinions and questions; and inability to socialize.
1. Lack of Family Bonds
Both for adults and children, the most statistically significant risk factor for Internet use is weak familial connections.
The data indicate that adults are at risk when they are unmarried or emotionally distant from their spouse. Anything we do to strengthen our marriages --from spending more time together as husbands and wives, to taking courses in the practice and philosophy of marriage -- makes us less vulnerable to the Internet.
The data also indicate that children are at risk when they are physically separated or emotionally distant from their parents. Anything we do to strengthen our relationships with our children -- from spending more one-on-one time with them, to taking courses in the practice and philosophy of parenting -- makes them less vulnerable to the Internet.
For centuries, rabbis have been teaching that children need parental love, and that when parents are not present to provide it, the children will find dangerous replacements elsewhere. 21 Therapists steeped in Jewish tradition were therefore not shocked when the director of computer-addiction services at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School, Maressa Hecht Orzack, recently revealed her finding that the children most vulnerable to the Internet 's magnetic pull are "from families where nobody is at home to relate to after school." Greeting our children when they arrive home from school, being there to send them off again in the morning, and spending quality time with them in between all constitute inoculations against the Internet.
2. Low Self-Esteem
Architects of the European Enlightenment attempted (and to a large degree succeeded) in persuading the masses that man was nothing more than a sophisticated monkey. When Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel was preparing to found the now legendary yeshiva in Slobodka, he asked his teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, what principle should guide the institution. Rabbi Salanter, acutely aware of the degrading campaign being conducted all around him, answered with a verse from Isaiah, "Revive the spirit of the lowly and resuscitate the heart of those who have been crushed." 22 If we think we are apes, we will behave as such; and if we know we are more exalted than the angels, we will live up to that reality.
We are not surprised that study after study reveals that those who are most attracted to the most degraded Internet sites also have the lowest self-esteem. 23
Today's parents and teachers who have experimented with Isaiah's ancient approach -- teaching about the essential greatness of being human -- have experienced tremendous success. We can teach this not only through what we say, but through how we say it, and how we walk, eat, and dress. Every fiber of our existence can declare, "I am a mensch -- and so are you!" We must also be careful not to degrade others even when we need to rebuke them. Perhaps never before have we had so much to lose should we abandon the teachings of our forebears.
3. Inability to Express Opinions and Questions
Because of its perceived anonymity, the world of the web offers adults and children alike a place to say and ask what they feel they cannot say and ask in the real world. The less people feel they can discuss with their teachers and parents, the more likely they are to turn to the Internet for discussion and information. 24
We especially want our children and our adult students to ask us their questions regarding sexual matters and theological issues. We want our children and students to hear about these matters directly and exclusively from us, not only because the Internet offers such corrupt presentations of these topics, but also because these areas constitute the most precious aspects of our nation's tradition. It is a tremendous privilege to pass along these special gifts to the next generation.
We must be sober enough to realize that today almost all children and many adults have questions on these topics. If they are not asking us, they are either getting answers elsewhere or looking for an opportunity to do so. We must encourage our children and our adult students to inquire, and then we must give them suitable answers. If we do not know how to approach these topics or respond to our children's questions, we can approach our own teachers and counselors, master these aspects of our tradition, and then pass these teachings on to the next generation.
4. Inability to Socialize
Data indicate that many who turn to the Internet for pornography or social contact do so because they consistently fail to succeed socially in their own world. 25 These individuals generally fall into one of two categories: the socially inept; and the "not-so-beautiful."
First, there are the socially inept. These are individuals who never mastered how to get along with others. When they were young, they often studied straight through recess or preferred playing computer games or doing other solitary activities. In some cases, they wanted to play with everyone else but were excluded. In their pre-teens or even earlier, these children were joining the ranks of the "at-risk" for later Internet involvement.
Their cases highlight the crucial educational potential of recess time. The playground and after-school free play are not only the perfect venues for teaching less popular children how to make friends, share, and lose with a smile; they are also ideal opportunities to teach more popular children how to pick teams using randomizing procedures (instead of choosing just their friends), introduce new members to their clique, and encourage those who are less socially confident. Just as the classroom is ideal for teaching math and science, the playground is ideal for teaching character refinement. It would be odd if we left either of these venues unsupervised. Those teachers and parents who invest time in supervising free play are taking a vital step in inoculating the next generation against the dangers of the Internet.
The second group who fail socially and are therefore at risk for Internet use are those not considered "beautiful" -- they lack the physical attractiveness or money that would give them a fighting chance in many social circles. Despite being thoughtful, deep people with nice character, these men and women usually have suffered repeated social rejection.
Men in this category are sometimes attracted to Internet pornography because it gives them a brief -- albeit depraved -- opportunity to leave their painful, lonesome reality. Loneliness can be excruciating, and these men are so desperate to escape their solitary lives that they use the Internet like a sort of hallucinogenic drug. After the fantasy, return to reality is even more painful, and then these men often feel terribly guilty too; but until they find real companionship, they are likely to return to the net again and again.
Women who lack physical attractiveness or money are sometimes attracted to the Internet because the medium conceals their "appearance." While mainstream dating requires that people first reveal their physical profile or wealth, and only then get to know each other, the virtual world of the web seems to offer the opportunity first to get to know someone and only afterward discover these less intrinsic details. In theory, this should tip the scales in favor of nice-but-ordinary-looking, or nice-but-poor women.
The assumption is dangerously naive, however, since so many Internet relationships are built on deception and misrepresentation. Children pretend to be adults, adults pretend to be children, men pretend to be women and vice-versa, and people lie about their religion, background and accomplishments. In one survey, more than a quarter of those who socialized using email or instant messaging admitted to lying about their identity. 26 Not surprisingly, disappointment and heartbreak are commonplace in Internet romance. This is not to mention those beastly predators who go online specifically to lure unsuspecting individuals to personal meetings and then victimize them.
We can teach our children about the cyber-street and about the hucksters and criminals who live there. This could lessen the Internet 's attractiveness as a forum for meeting friends and partners. An even more significant step in reducing our children's vulnerability would be to teach children and students to value personal refinement and integrity at least as much as they value physical appearance or money.
The challenges and threats posed by the Internet leaves us no option but to strengthen family ties and teacher-student relationships; to stress in our educational approach and behavior the essential greatness of being human; to encourage questions and open discussion, especially about issues related to sexuality and religion; and to raise a generation who will seek marriage partners who are above all emblems of refinement and integrity. Parents and teachers who recognize these challenges can adjust to modernity and raise a heroic generation. Those who fail to see this hairpin turn in the path towards normalcy could lead their children and students over a disastrous precipice.
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