One of the challenges of forming an understanding of the effect of the Internet on children is that kids may agree to something, yet behave in a way that contradicts the agreement. An example is the issue surrounding children watching various materials on the Web, which should normally be subject to parental discretion. Surveys of users indicate that parents often fail to adequately control their kids’ Internet surfing. This becomes especially true for 12-13 year old children, as they are believed to become more responsible in terms of selecting a proper content on the Web (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 45-47). If such behavior becomes socially accepted, then it starts constituting part of positive morality. Consequently, laws have little meaning unless the public's code of ethics and understanding of morals and fairness result in acceptance and adherence. In other words, there is no clear law prohibiting children from accessing sites with ‘adult’ content as their parents are generally held responsible for the kids’ behavior. This paper, by referring to a number of scholarly articles and sources, discusses the effect of Internet on children, arguing that modern legal and social system fails to adequately protect youngsters from the adverse affects the Web has on the kids.
It may be appropriate to restrict children's access to the Internet with the help of software, which does not permit connecting to certain World Wide Web (WWW) sites from a particular personal computer (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, Kraut, and Gross 24). This restricts the rights of free expression (i.e., the person offering such material on the Web).
Accordingly, one individual's personal right is restrained in the hope of protecting a child. Hence, the distribution of pornographic material usually requires careful assessment of potential violations of legislation in some countries. From a moral standpoint, an extremist could argue that one may have to restrict the use and content of the Internet (e.g., pornography) in order to reduce the chances of children being exposed to pornography. Subsequently, a problem arises when a “minimalist refuses to accept this moral outlook and continues to read and distribute pornography through the Internet” (Tarpley 550-552).
Can we enforce a limit on the number of sites on the Web offering pornographic material, without raising Internet users' fears of being unjustly treated? One group's freedom to watch pornographic pictures may infringe upon another's right to a porno-free environment. Accordingly, the development of a just society requires that the rights secured by justice are balanced among the various groups' interests.
Another concern is how people's rights for keeping their conversations via the Internet private might be violated by an encryption regulation that attempts to exclude people from countries other than the Unites States or Canada from the latest technology (Tarpley 550-552). Similarly, France's requirement that encryption keys need to be deposited with authorized French parties may violate another country's citizen's rights. To illustrate, when communicating with a U.S. friend traveling in France while using non-certified or unapproved encryption technology without necessarily being aware of it, French laws may be violated by both the sender and the recipient.
Less democratic governments than the one in France may misuse such harmless violations to stop a person from entering or leaving the country (Turow 56).
This suggests that the lack of a clear understanding of people's (and especially children’s) rights and responsibilities across nations in addition to legislation and regulation that lacks harmonization even within trading or political unions may further exacerbate the problem (Turow 59-63). In order to protect most Internet users from having their rights violated, we need a comprehensive social contract for the Internet. Moreover, protecting Internet rights in one country may not suffice. For instance, privacy laws protecting individual rights to access, correct, or eliminate information from databases in one country may be circumvented by creating, upgrading, and applying the database from abroad. Only international cooperative agreements will secure Internet rights. Principles and conditions of the cooperative process must be met in order to discharge one's Internet rights in an ethical way while, most importantly, meeting society's moral and legal standards (Turow 59-63).
Unfortunately, at this time it does not appear that we are developing a comprehensive social contract for cyberspace and the Internet as it relates to children. If efforts are undertaken, each country appears to pursue its individual interests driven by domestic political and economic agendas, interest groups, and reelection campaigns. In cases where international agreements are pursued, their harmonization with other countries is not being pursued unless trade or other conflicts are looming on the horizon (Anderson, Berkowitz, and Donnerstein 99-100).
During March 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court also heard arguments involving a new law that wants to ban anything from the Internet that depicts or describes in offensive terms, as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs (it does not target obscenity or child pornography that are already illegal in the United States and many other countries). However, it is simply impossible for the vast majority of Internet users and service providers to distinguish between adults and children in their audience and, instead, parents should exercise parental responsibility in preventing kids from accessing indecent communications, including the ones posted abroad (Anderson, Berkowitz, and Donnerstein 101). During the hearing on Wednesday, March 19, 1997 at the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Bryer asked whether the government might prosecute a group of high school students discussing their sexual experiences in a chat room on the Internet. If, in June, 1997 the Supreme Court had not rejected the proposed indecency law, this would have made a large number of high school students guilty of a federal crime by discussing sexuality issues on the Internet. The rejected indecency law in the United States exemplifies how difficult it will be to develop a comprehensive social contract that defines children’s rights and responsibilities (Griffiths 28).
The previous discussion illustrates that because our efforts for international cooperative agreements are miserable in many areas, it does not look like progress will be made by politicians and international bodies unless Internet users and interest groups put some pressure on their elected officials to make it happen. Being clear about children’s rights and responsibilities about the Internet might be another important step toward a cooperative social agreement beyond national borders.
When we discuss general rights in cyberspace or society, we often appear to ignore the importance of responsibilities we acquire with any right. Hence, the right to privacy or to data protection and safety does not mean we can simply avoid responsibility in what we do with and about data (Griffiths 30). Instead, each individual is responsible for protecting our rights and pursuing them within the moral constraints we adhere to in a society.
In summary, this paper argues that one of the biggest challenges remaining for all of us is to develop a comprehensive social contract for cyberspace and the Internet, whereby we determine the parameters for the rights and responsibilities children and adults hold jointly. In order to continue the betterment of the many and not the few, we must pursue the responsibilities and rights we have in regard to the Internet with caution and vigor. Interest groups, citizens, and users alike must participate in this process and take responsibility for their apathy, behavior, and adherence to the rights and responsibilities pertaining to the Internet.