HOLLYWOOD, Calif. The Congress and the nation can learn a fundamental lesson from last fall's U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's resignation tragedy. Simply put, it is a wakeup call for our nation to open its eyes to a very real problem.
Most Americans in all quarters have turned a virtual blind eye to the terrible dangers lurking on the dark side of the Internet. As a result, every child with unrestricted access to the Internet is only a mouse click away from exposure to the grossest of pornographic images and sexual predators.
How many children falling prey to predators and pornographers will it take to wake our nation to this crisis? Is it acceptable that the largest viewers of Internet pornography are teenagers? That 11-year-old children have been exposed to images of sodomy, bestiality or sex with children younger than they are? Are our children safe when one-in-five of them receives a sexual solicitation each year?
By its lack of action, our nation is answering these questions with a tacit yes.
The consequences of our nation continuing to ignore this lesson will be significant. National polls show that few parents are aware of the real online dangers and many of those who do are Internet illiterate. Protecting our children online should be at the top of our list of national priorities and implementing preventative safety rules and software tools should be as automatic to every parent and guardian as using a car safety seat.
The lesson needs to be brought home to every citizen from Capitol Hill to Main Street. We must understand the truth about Internet dangers and expose Internet pornographers and predators. Those who abuse the Internet to sexually exploit children can be anyonea neighbor, family member, a school teacher, and yes, even a respected and admired member of Congress. The difficulty we face is that it is virtually impossible to detect a disguised predator online.
Just as disconcerting, it is impossible to detect a disguised predator offline.
The Internet has fueled deviant sexual behavior due to predators' easy access to child pornography and easy and anonymous access to children. Both ignite the sexual appetite of pedophiles. Ala carte child pornography is easy pickings for the child predator. Pornography depicting kids of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages, even toddlers and infants are part of today's Internet. Easy access to unsuspecting children via e-mail, instant messaging, social networking sites and chat rooms makes a sexual predator's job all the more easy.
Is it any wonder that perhaps the once-closet pedophiles are acting out their sexual fantasies on real life victims?
Six years ago, the congressionally-appointed Child Online Protection Act Commission of 1998 submitted its recommendations to the Congress. As a COPA commissioner, I recall our heated debates and discussions, but there was one issue on which everyone agreed to check their differences at the doorit was the importance of a national public awareness and parental empowerment campaign.
Enough Is Enough has worked closely with Congress and the Department of Justice to develop its prevention-based Internet Safety 101: Empowering Parents program. The very program supported by a congressional bipartisan earmark was able to help support those in Congress as they grappled with the Foley fallout.
Coming from both my professional and personal experience, I encourage and admonish the media to protect the privacy of the young teen pages by not revealing their identities to avoid further exploitation. The trauma of sexual victimization can be very painful and exponentially aggravated by placing these youth on the center stage of a national sex scandal.
Working toward prevention
The good news is that we can harness the public awareness opportunities afforded by these disturbing situations to bring focused attention on the root problem and deal with it. Prevention is critical. An immediate first step is the education and empowerment of parents, guardians and other adult child caregivers with the tools they need to protect our children at home, at school, at the library, and, oh yeah, in the halls of Congress.
As a nation, we must not wait for the next headline or tragedy to occur before we take action. When foreign terrorists attacked the World Trade Center our nation sprang to action. We declared war on terrorism.
Just as threatening to our homeland security is the terrorism our children face everyday when unscrupulous pornographers and predators prey on their innocence. Are not our children our most precious and valuable national resource? It's time to declare war. No more! Enough Is Enough!
Donna Rice Hughes, who served on the Congressionally-appointed Child Online Protection Act Commission, is the chairwoman and president of Enough Is Enough, a national non-partisan not-for-profit organization whose mission is to make the Internet safer for children and families. For more information, log on to enough.org.