Is the Internet dangerous to children?
Parents across the country were asking that question after an 11-year-old New Jersey boy was sexually abused and murdered, allegedly by a 15-year-old neighbor.The teenager himself apparently had been the victim of a 43-year-old convicted pedophile whom he met online.
As events unfolded, yet another American family debate erupted. There were calls for greater regulation of the Internet. And predictably, all-or-nothing First Amendment advocates responded by saying that parents were ultimately responsible for keeping their children safe - just as they guard their children against violent television shows.
But this argument against regulation doesn't take into account the Internet's interactive nature, which makes it an even more dangerous medium than television.
New technology has always posed dilemmas for parents. After World War II, television brought a whole visual world into the living room.
The issue of television's effect on children is still with us today - witness the debate over the V-chip, which would allow parents to block inappropriate programs.
But the Internet takes us into a quite different terrain. The Internet can bring into a home not only passive entertainment, like television images, but also the interactive presence of other voices, ready to engage in conversation.
We "experts" have always been quick to give advice on how to set limits for children: Know what is available to children; talk with them about what is appropriate; exert parental authority respectfully but firmly.
The Internet is an ever-expanding and valuable reservoir of knowledge, a wonderful means of fast human communication, but it is also a garbage heap of pornography, of lewd exchanges, of crazy ranting - all of that a mirror of who and what we are as a people.
Just as there is a new ratings systems for television shows, the nation should also consider the place of the Internet in our lives and, especially, in our children's lives.
We as a society must continue to make distinctions between what is and is not appropriate for children, and we must keep putting barriers in the way of the inappropriate - on the Internet as well as on television and in the movies.