TV Chat. What a nice way, she thought, to meet new friends, talk about Barney and Big Bird, and converse by computer about all her favorite TV programs. Though only 8 years old, she was quick with the family computer. She scrolled rapidly through the menu of other online "chat rooms" and was soon ready to make her choice.
How could she know TV Chat was for transvestites? Across the country, the "information highway" holds a growing fascination for both young and old. The nation's three major online computer services — Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online — boast more than 6 million subscribers, while an estimated 25 million users cruise the Internet worldwide.
With a home computer and a telephone modem, you can blast off for the outer reaches of "cyberspace," as the online universe is known. Your destination? Despite the vast informational wealth available, "the bulk of commercial online service … is spent browsing various chat forums, especially those devoted to sexual discussion and flirtation," says Fran Maier, marketing director for Match.Com, a San Francisco-based electronic advertising service. Three of the five most popular chat rooms or "newsgroups" on the Internet, she points out, are devoted to sex.
For men, the allure of "cybersex" is proving more potent than any Playboy. Experts admit a major obstacle for online services is the way sex talk and electronic harassment have scared away women users. On the World Wide Web, the most popular service for accessing the Internet, an astonishing 90 percent of users are men. At America Online, men account for 85 percent of subscribers. And among Prodigy users, men outnumber women by more than 2-to-1.
More than 25,000 private computer bulletin boards are active in the United States and sex-related discussion groups easily log the greatest number of messages. With names like Throbnet and Teaser's Palace, these networks explore every behavior the mind can conjure, from bondage to bestiality. With today's advanced computer graphics, they can also distribute pornographic images and video clips of astonishing clarity.
"In the privacy of their own homes people will try things and do things they could never be caught dead going to an adult bookstore for," explains author Howard Rheingold in the book, The Virtual Community. Computer chat is typically anonymous, he says, and users who share taboo behaviors gain praise and popularity from their newsgroup.
Users can "order whips and chains by the gross, drop in on group sex, and download more explicit pictures than are displayed in a decade's worth of Hustler. In one day I've read more intimate confessions than are found in a year's worth of Penthouse letters," reports Gerard van der Leun, a journalist who covers the online revolution. Anything available in adult bookstores, magazines and catalogs can be obtained instantly and easily by computer.
How far has "cyberporn" spread? Last year, the Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratories near San Francisco found their advanced computers were being used by hackers to store more than 1,000 hardcore pornographic images. And in Jefferson County, KY, police Lt. Bill Baker got an E-mail tip from Switzerland that helped him crack a cyberspace child pornography ring in Birmington, England. His three months of online investigation yielded 60 pages of computer file names and 400 explicit images.
"Virtually no one (is) working on those kinds of crimes at all," admits Frank Clark, a computer crimes consultant from Fresno, CA. Last year at a law enforcement conference, he challenged attendees to dial a major computer service with false IDs and pretend to be children. "I had them post a few innocuous messages" on bulletin boards for teenagers he recalls, "and the next day we had solicitations for nude pictures, phone sex, and offers to meet in person for sex."
Law enforcement agencies and civil libertarians struggle over the legal boundaries of cyberspace. It's not broadcast on the air, so rules for radio or TV don't apply. Officially the FBI regards email "as having the same privacy rights as surface mail." Others point out that, since Internet users connect via phone lines, computer chat is private speech.
Rules for the Road on the Information Highway
Just like watching TV, what you get from "surfing the net" depends on how you use it. A journey into cyberspace can take you to university libraries, art galleries, news archives — or into the vilest fleshpots the human mind can imagine.
1. Make a firm commitment before God that you will avoid placing yourself in situations on the computer where temptations may arise.
2. Place your online computer in a common area of the home.
3. Encourage your wife and children to sit down and telecompute with you.
4. Avoid surfing the net late at night when you're alone and tired.
5. Don't roam the Net aimlessly. Always have a definite destination in mind.
6. Monitor your children's online usage just as you do their TV viewing.
7. Decide your standards for what online entertainment is acceptable, communicate these to your children, and then stick to them.
8. Limit the amount of hours your children can spend online, then limit your own hours.
9. Periodically review file names your children have stored on the computer. Names ending in GIF, JPG, BMP, TIF, PCX, DL and GL commonly refer to video or graphic images you can retrieve and investigate.
10. Never let your children give out personal information over the computer, especially their full names, address, phone and financial data such as credit card numbers.
11. Never let your children respond to anyone who leaves obnoxious, lewd or threatening email.
12. Never let your children set up a face-to-face meeting with anyone they've met on a bulletin board. "We've already had rapes of children occur through that kind of (online) setup," says anti-pornography activist Lee Munsil.