It isn’t that hard to understand why, from the start, people feared the internet, and particularly its corrupting influence on children. The internet is a seedy place. I remember going onto AOL chat in 1994 or 1995, and being really surprised at the kind of lewd, explicit IMs I’d get from strangers. It doesn’t take a huge leap for a parent to realize this is going on and then fear that these strangers are just waiting for a child to pass on their personal information.
The problem is that these people weren’t seeking to prey on kids; they just wanted to engage in some explicit chat with willing teens and adults. And, unlike in real life, the person they were making the comments to had total power: I could simply close the window and block that person. In reality, young people have far more control in the internet than in real life. A 16-year-old girl who has men she’s waiting on in her job at a restaurant hitting on her can’t hit a button and make those men disappear; a college freshman who is being catcalled walking to class can’t just block those voices from her life permanently. Online, though, they would have that option. Any time they are approached by a man making advances that are unwanted or uncomfortable, they can immediately stop the conversation and prevent that person from making any further contact. Far from leaving children and teens vulnerable to the advances of adults, the internet actually gives them far more power to control these interactions than they have in real life.
The dangers of the internet, then, aren’t the dangers of scary adults preying on innocent children. The danger is the internet itself. Children of all ages can access the most explicit, vile images you can imagine, sometimes accidentally. (I once, in high school, worked on a paper about women in Turkey. Let me tell you, I learned that you do not do web searches on ‘Turkish women’ very quickly.) They have access to all kinds of images and information their parents would probably rather they not see or know. And, they have the ability to put images and information out there that their parents would definitely prefer they didn’t. The danger isn’t that children are being preyed on, because, far more than in real life, the internet puts young people in a position of control, where they can immediately ignore a person’s advances and block further contact. The danger is children and teens actively, eagerly seeking information, images, and relationships that their parents don’t approve of and that, in many cases, probably aren’t appropriate for them.
The real danger of the internet wasn’t that there was a group of evil people using it to exploit children, but that it provides children access to information and images that they shouldn’t have access to. And, as we’ll see, when people have access to something, they oftentimes will access it, even if they shouldn’t. As law enforcement realized that there weren’t any of these pedophiles preying on small children out there to catch–and that, if there were, they weren’t catching them–they quickly realized that there was a lot of money and many arrests to be made by catching people doing things online that they would not do in real life. Hence the chat sting and child porn internet sting were born.