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Web of doom
Post-Littleton, paranoid media pundits seem blind to the line between the computer screen and reality -- just like the killers.

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May 7, 1999 | The Littleton shootings have set off the most intense and broad-brushed wave of anti-Internet paranoia since the Great Net Porn Scare of 1995. Now, two weeks after the tragedy, we've cycled beyond the initial "Blame it on the Net" phase (which my colleague James Poniewozik ably chronicled) into a full-tilt "Something must be done!" reaction -- complete with a White House summit on media violence and a desperate self-policing effort from an online industry hoping to stave off the next round of ill-conceived legislation.

Time magazine, which led the way in demonizing the Net four years ago, is once more in the forefront. Its cover this week reads: "Growing Up Online: Today's kids dwell in a world of computers and video games. Here's how parents can help them make the right choices." The cover bathes a bespectacled pre-teen boy in a cool monitor glow.

In a different month, the exact same illustration might have accompanied an ebullient article about digital prodigies, with a headline like "Will your child be the next Bill Gates?" But post-Littleton, the message is clear: The Net is an unhealthy influence. Protect your offspring from the deadly rays!

Daniel Okrent's thoughtful but muddled cover story alternates a savvy awareness of the Net's unique traits with a hand-wringing frustration about how little parents can do about them: "Even if our kids aren't playing blood-soaked computer games or plotting violence in the dark crannies of an online chat room, they are plunging into a whole world of influences and values and enticements that is, most of the time, hidden from our view." He continues, "The wonder and horror of the Web is not that it takes you out into the world; on the contrary, it brings the world -- in all its glorious, anarchic, beautiful, hateful variety -- into your home."

Similarly, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman -- echoing a message in his new book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" -- argues that the Net represents a dangerous intrusion into the sacred American living room. His Tuesday column describes a conversation with a concerned parent in Baltimore: "The murders in Littleton, though, and particularly the fact that one of the presumed gunmen had his own blood-chilling Web site, had got him thinking afresh about his own kids, he said. He suddenly realized that, with the Internet, it didn't matter anymore what neighborhood he lived in, and whether he locked the doors or not -- because trouble was now a fingertip away. With 'one mouse click,' his kids could be in a porn shop, a pedophile's living room, a casino, a gun shop, a neo-Nazi hall, and Lord only knows where else."

With such messages pouring into the public psyche, it was inevitable that the public would respond by saying, "Do something!" And so a CNN poll reports that 65 percent of American adults believe that the federal government should "do more to regulate violence on the Internet." I'm still puzzling over that one: Are we going to outlaw flaming? Ban violent games? What is "violence on the Internet," anyway -- has an e-mail ever slugged anyone?

What's happening here, I think, is not just a transitory bout of finger-pointing. It's a sign of a more dangerous societal nervous breakdown on the subject of the Internet -- a volatile mixture of ignorance, fear and repressiveness that displays a kind of incipient collective insanity.

 Next page | Why parents should thank the Web instead of blaming it


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