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Cyberspace can be compared to a car; it can run over innocent victims, but it can also rush sick people to hospital. The use of the Internet by children and teenagers (as well as adults) can be a boon for informing, educating, entertaining, bringing people together and empowering the disabled. But it can also spread pornography, violence and racism, promote crime and deception, and engulf people in virtual worlds and obsessions.
Many people are overjoyed by its possibilities for good, while others regard it as an unnecessary evil: The haredi Jewish community in Lakewood, New Jersey, has barred its use, refusing to admit children to religious schools if they have access to the Web at home. If Jews bar the Internet, it would be like the Amish, who travel by horse and buggy.
It's impossible to ignore or outlaw the Internet, according to some who are nevertheless concerned about the risks it poses, just as one can't ban phones or cars; instead, they say, adults should become experienced in the benefits and dangers of cyberspace and not leave the field to youngsters.
ONE OF these is Dr. Mark Banschick, a child psychiatrist trained at Columbia and Cornell Universities who has a private practice in Connecticut and Westchester. He knew little about the Internet until a few years ago, when he saw odd behaviors in some teenagers he treated and asked them to explain what they do in cyberspace. Banschick, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family, has since become modern Orthodox, teaches at NY's Hebrew Union College and is on the board of Mesorah, the organization of Orthodox Jewish psychiatrists, spoke about "Cyberspace and Children" in Jerusalem recently. He presented a comprehensive lecture at the annual conference of Nefesh-Israel, the network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other therapists). Making good use of cyberspace, the organization is putting up a library of MP3 files on its Web site (www.nefeshisrael.com) featuring selected lectures from this and last year's conference (including Banschick's talk).
Think back to 1885, when Henry Ford's Model-T was invented and then introduced in 1908. "There were 15 million sold in the US by 1927. Nobody would have dreamed in 1885 what changes the motor vehicle would bring to the world. This is our situation today with the Internet. Technology is taking us to new places. How can we manage it in a wholesome way? The technology is here to stay. Kids are being raised in a new environment where they are the masters."
But many things can go wrong in this new world. He recalled the case of an awkward, nerdy high-school boy with few friends who was always in front of a computer. One day, he received an e-mail from the prettiest girl in class. The message said she had been too shy to speak to him in person, but really liked him and wanted to correspond.
"The boy fell for it and wrote back in enthusiastic terms," recalled Banschick. "The immediate response was 'Ha Ha Ha!'; the senders were four bullies who sent his message all around the school. If he had been taught about Internet bullying, he would have handled it better."
When writing e-mail or participating in chat groups, don't press the 'send' button without thinking, Banschick counselled. "Bite your lip first. There is a phenomenon called flaming, in which normal conversation escalates and becomes violent or even sexual. It can easily be forwarded to other people. Some threaten suicide or murder in a message even though they don't really mean it. You can get into a lot of trouble."
The child psychiatrist urges that intermediate and high schools and even elementary schools begin to offer age-appropriate teaching modules on the use of the Internet. "It's like driver's education courses. They have to learn to manage this very seductive medium. One should never supply personal, identifying information to a stranger over the Internet."
Parents too have to be educated, he adds. It's inevitable that kids will be way ahead of their parents on the use and contents of the Web, but parents should familiarize themselves with the dangers as well as the benefits.
"Try to check their Internet 'history' to see what Web sites they've been to. Set restrictive 'surfing' hours for those who spend too much time at the computer. Stop instant messaging services like ICQ."
But his young patients say they easily get around parental controls. "There are proxy sites on the Web that allow youngsters to navigate past firewalls and blocks and Web-filtering software. This enables them to view any Web page they want.
MICROSOFT'S NEW Vista operating system gives parents more control than ever in monitoring children's surfing, barring access at certain hours, preventing access to forbidden sites and the like, but ways to evade these measures will inevitably be found. Banschick is well aware of the fact that kids can learn how to get around restrictions. "Children are ahead of the pack," he notes
Plagiarism via the Internet is also a growing problem, he noted. Anyone who knows how to copy and paste can easily steal material from Web sites. While it may be full of errors, much of the information may be correct and usable. There are well-known Web sites that offer free term papers and even sell complete master's and doctoral theses. Educators who are not aware of such sites are at a disadvantage when trying to decide whether material is original, but Banschick notes that there are special sites to help them find out.
The Internet also gives people the option of living "secret lives," said Banschick.
"I've learned there are lots of teenagers and even children like this - kids who suffer from bulimia or other conditions whose families have no idea but whose Internet chat group knows all about their personalities. Their secret lives can be played out under conditions of easy accessibility, affordability and anonymity."
Whenever he meets young patients for the first time, the 50-year-old psychiatrist asks whether they have a home page on the Web site MySpace, or their own Web site. "Most of them agree to show me. This provides information that nobody in the family knows about. They use it to present their other identity to the world. Psychotherapists have to get computer-savvy to learn about the alternate lives their patients are living."
BANSCHICK GIVES the example of a bulimic with an anonymous MySpace account who claimed she was 22. In fact she was 16. "She talks to bulimic people around world, none of whom has access to her real identity. Nevertheless, the chat group members try to save each other. It's a completely new anthropology. But they can't save anyone. Chat group members have the false illusion that they can be helped and can help. They don't know who the other participants really are!"
Kolbotek last week broadcast a TV segment on a 44-year-old pedophile who posed as a 14-year-old boy in a chat group and had been harrassing young girls. Female staffers from Kolbotek who were part of a team to catch him said they were pre-teen girls and joined the chat group. The pedophile persuaded the "girls" to give their phone numbers, and armed with a video camera, he stripped and performed an indecent act that they could see on their screens. He has since been arrested by police.
But the Internet offers many undenied advantages. The Jewish world, said Banschick, is greatly benefiting from the Internet in terms of the spread of the Torah, bringing together people of similar interests and the supply of information. In addition, Jewish matchmaking sites such as JDate, Frumster, Orthodate, Dosidate, the Shidduch Connection, JMatch, JewishCafe and SawUatSinai are making it easier for Jews to meet others around the world. Internet dating is here and supplying a need. People are responding to it." He also described blogs (Web logs) such as www.thisnormallife.com whose authors - immigrants to Israel - describe their lives here in an authentic way.
But Banschick warned that portals such as MySpace, FaceBook and YouTube can be dangerous. "You can make believe you are anybody. Twelve-year-old girls claim they are 22. They have relationships with each other. There are 77 million addresses on MySpace alone, and some of them represent a person with more than one address."
The Internet is the epitome of multitasking. "You can do your homework, play a game, listen to - or steal - music, watch a basketball game, buy something and socialize with friends all at the same time. Some adults are doing this too. This is a powerful stimulus for the brain.
"Many people, however, find it to be overstimulating and distracting. But the workplace of the future will look very different from today's if this is the way the workplace develops. We are training brains to think this way." Banschick says the Web blurs boundaries - identities, privacy, work and social life, personal and commercial content, family roles, generational lines, the sense of community, social hierarchies and morals.
As adults generally know much less about computers than their children, they too can get into trouble when online. "Parents think their conversations are private. But many kids try to break into their parents' e-mail accounts, learning about extramarital affairs, gambling, viewing of pornography. This can mean that the child carries a secret that is hard to bear."
He gives the case of a 15-year-old girl living in joint custody of her divorced parents. "The mother had a sexual relationship for two years before the divorce, but Kim didn't know about it. One day, she sneaks into her mother's e-mail account and discovers old messages that are explicit and intimate between her and a man in the community whom Kim knows well. She loses her innocence, but can't speak of it with her mother."
Any tendency, good or bad, is amplified by the Web. It can spread Jewish studies. Someone can learn about a favorite subject, such as authentic Japanese music, from corresponding with an expert on the subject in Japan. One could never do this before. You can communicate live with scientists in Antarctica, and even see them.
"But the downside is addiction - to the Internet, e-mail, sex, gambling, shopping, pornography or plagiarism. There are sexual predators from all walks of life, even doctors and teachers. Only some are being caught. Most pedophiles would never have become pedophiles 30 years ago, before the Internet. Now they have an opportunity because access is easier."
Many parents are not even aware of MMRPGs - massive multiplayer role-playing games played online by kids as young as 10. For many gamers, the games' virtual worlds are more exciting and colorful than their ordinary lives, and more real than their daily existence. Kids are overstimulated, and their teachers desperately try to compete by making lessons more visual, sometimes at the expense of depth.
The Internet, added Banschick, "is not the devil. It is a democratizing force that offers society a monumental step forward - like the printing press or the motor vehicle were over a century ago. It brings information and power to groups who are otherwise distant from centers of power. Syria, China and other non-democracies are fearful of it because it opens things up for people who feel oppressed. Children and teenagers are among these, and the Internet creates a community one can run to without having to leave home. People can make friends from all over the world."
Kids, he said, are "driving cars in cyberspace without seatbelts - and the parents even don't know where the keys go!" said Banschick metaphorically.
"You can access Torah on the Internet, and you can access pornography as well. This is the beast. We are in the midst of a revolution. It's risky, but it has a lot of potential."