Information Literacy’s Role in the Penn State Story

Everyone has been talking about the Penn State pedophilia/rape story, and it is absolutely horrifying.  But there was something in this story that jumped out at me that I wanted to highlight.  It was a just an offhanded comment in the NY Daily News piece about “victim 1.”

The victim’s mother tells Stephanopolous how she gradually became aware of the abuse, saying he would act out violently to intentionally become grounded and avoid seeing Sandusky, at one point telling her he wanted to know how to look up information on sex offenders.

That’s right.  This victim was savvy enough to know that he could look up information about people who were sexual predators online, but he didn’t know how.

In a recent episode of the Sex Is Fun podcast the crew interviewed Amy Lang who runs the website Birds + Bees + Kids, which explores how parents can talk to their children about sex in a world that is overloaded with explicit sexual information online.  One of the shocking statistics that comes out in that two part interview is that children today have typically encountered a pornographic website by the age of 11. Now, there are dozens of ways that this information can be taken.  But let’s look at it in the context of the situation at hand.

Here, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, at the hands of a trusted adult, understood that something was horribly wrong.  He knew that there were adults who hurt children sexually, and that this was a crime.  He knew that there is a lot of information about sex on the internet.  He also knew that there were places online where someone could go and find out who these people are who sexually abuse children.  Perhaps he went online so that he could compare his experience against the experiences of other people who were hurt like he was, or look at pictures of other molesters and see if they looked like his molester.

One of the biggest mental hurdles that victims of childhood sexual abuse encounter is thinking that either this is only happening to them, or that what they’re going through is somehow supposed to be happening.  It has been a problem of isolation, where victims feel alone in their circumstances. Clearly that is changing.

With broader access to online information about the world, about life, sex, and traumatic experiences, children like this young boy can quickly find information about what is happening to him.  Clearly he knew it was wrong, and he turned to a place where he thought he could find an answer. The internet.

It wasn’t the law, or McQueary, or Paterno, or Penn State that brought down this wall of silence. It was a kid looking up sex offender information on the internet.

That is the world we live in.

Kids, Truth, and Lies

Kids lie. Any parent will tell you that.
“Did you eat the cookies?”
“Did you break the lamp?”
“Did you sign up for a Facebook account?”

Yes you did. Yes, you ate the cookies, broke the lamp and lied about your age to get onto Facebook. Children want to get online, because their older siblings are getting online, their friends are doing it, their parents are doing it and they want to be a part of that.

Earlier this month a post went around the internet about a woman who established a Gmail account for her eight year old son, and two years later (now) he got a Google+ invitation. Due to age restrictions on the internet he was required to put in his age, and since his parents raised him to be a truthful person he entered his actual age of ten. This led to the child being not only blocked from Google+ but also from his Gmail account where he talks to his grandparents.  The mother blogged about it and got completely inundated with comments both for and against.

The reason why her son got banned is because Google is taking the easy way out on COPPA enforcement.  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act basically limits children under the age of 13 from engaging in basically any activity on the internet without their parent’s consent.  If the service doesn’t provide any options for parental consent (as Google and Facebook do not) then the child just has to wait.

Or they can lie.  And a lot of them lie.

It happens all the time.  Anyone can enter any age they want into the Facebook, and kids who want to do something they’re not supposed to do will find a way to do it.  And that means that they will lie to get online and do things they probably shouldn’t do.  But some, as this woman’s child was, are simply online because they are learning to be an active part of the information culture that we all share.

I totally respect that parents have and desire different levels of control over what their children do and do not see online.  I also think it’s a Sisyphean challenge on their behalf, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.  No.  Rather I would like to look at the values that this legislation is trying to instill and how flawed it is in implementation and enforcement. There are several factors that merit consideration.

Lack of Parental Options

The primary problem in this situation is that Google is not providing a method by which a parent could be involved in the child’s online presence.  This parent clearly values teaching the child how to be a responsible internet user, and that’s something that she should have the right to exercise on whatever site she wishes. By not providing a parental consent option Google does a disservice to responsible parents.

Ease of the Lie

The amount of verification that is required in order to get a Google or Facebook account is paper thin.  They’re basically just taking your word for it.  And for the majority of adults that’s awesome, because any of these age verification methods is just one more frustrating bullshit roadblock to have to deal with.  But if you’re talking about legal compliance, it’s the least amount of age compliance that anyone bothers with.  If you say you’re 14, we’ll just believe you.

The Value of the Lie

Children get a lot of use out of the internet, just as much as adults do.  They get to talk to their friends, share photos, play games together, listen to music, watch videos.  It’s awesome.  And if they have to lie to get to do something awesome, they will totally do it.  And there are basically no repercussions for doing so except for getting blocked if you get caught.

I Learned It By Watching You

Adults are on the internet constantly.  I’m a librarian and a blogger who’s married to a programmer, it’s like I’m mainlining the internet on a daily basis.  Make no mistake that kids want to be on these sites because their friends are, you are, everyone they know is but them.  They want to play with the big kids.  And why shouldn’t they?

Let’s have a real conversation about this.

This legislation, all the legislation that came before it, and all the legislation that will probably ever come after it is only going to work as far as kids can get around it and as far as companies are willing to put up with it.  The problem is not that eight-year-olds are signing up for Gmail, it’s that some parents want to legislate proper parenting for everyone else.  Different parents have different values.  My parents raised me to watch R rated films and when they didn’t want to see the movie my mother would buy my ticket for me and drop me off at the theater.  She wasn’t happy about it.  She’d rather I was allowed to buy my own tickets, but she did it.  If I was a child today I would ask my mom to sign me up for email and any other site on the internet.  And parents should have that right.

But you can’t petition a company for redress the same way you can petition the government.  You just get what you get.  And with the way things are set up now, you get lies from children.  And you know what lying about who you are on the internet leads to?  Gay girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real.  That’s all I’m saying.

More and more often the internet is placing a greater value on your true identity.  And we should value truth.  If a child wants to sign up for an internet service they should be encouraged to be truthful.  They should be educated about making safe choices on the internet, being honest with people, and knowing how to protect themselves, and yes there absolutely should be parental involvement.  Will kids still lie online?  Probably.  But the more we talk to them about what they could experience online the more prepared they will be to deal with those situations when they arise, and they will be stronger people online because of it.