MIAMI -- It was, let me admit upfront, my own stupid fault.
I should have watched more closely. Should have just said no. Should have done SOMETHING to ensure against what happened: my 10-year-old daughter gaping at a computer screen full of, as she put it, "nasty stuff." Graphic pictures of people having sex.
Makes me angry. Man, so angry.
My little girl's only interest was in gathering material for a school report on fashion. Her screen name is age-restricted, won't allow her to surf the Net, so she asked to use my computer and screen name. Given that I'd be in the room with her, I figured, why not? How much trouble could she get into with me keeping watch? Which is exactly what I did, glancing over every few minutes
I saw her looking at dresses. (Oh, that's nice.)
I saw her looking at models. (Oh, how cute.) I saw her looking at naked people. ("Oh, my God!")
I struggled to remain calm. "Be calm," that was my mantra. So I calmly asked how she'd gotten to this site. She didn't know. I calmly told her this wasn't appropriate for little girls. She explained that she'd been trying to get out, but the site wouldn't let her. I calmly signed her off and watched her leave. Then I calmly jumped up and down on the keyboard.
At least, that's what I felt like doing. What I actually did was seek out some friendly computer guys and ask what the heck had happened. They explained "spoofing," which is what somebody does when he rigs a seemingly harmless Web address so that it takes the unwary browser to a not-so-harmless Web site. They also explained "looping," which makes escape difficult because each time you try to get out, you're shuttled instead to another, similar site.
Legislative remedies mandating penalties for those who make porn accessible to minors are fatally flawed.
I'm not the first parent this has happened to, of course. A few years back, one of my readers told me how her kid ran a search for "Little Women," the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Instead, the child ran into little women of a kind that would have given Alcott a conniption. The aforementioned computer guys recommend that concerned parents look into some of the net-blocking software that has come onto the market in recent years.
Believe me, I'm on it. But I'm still angry. At myself for my naivete -- but more than that, just angry, period.
Because there is no solid solution for this. Net-blocking software is good, but not foolproof. And, as many have pointed out, legislative remedies mandating penalties for those who make porn accessible to minors are fatally flawed in two respects: First, they're vulnerable to free speech challenges. Second, they neglect to take into account that the "www" in Internet addresses stands for "worldwide" Web; U.S. law has no jurisdiction over content that originates in, say, Tokyo.
No solid solution. Just more vigilance and better software. That doesn't really satisfy me.
When was it that we abandoned the notion that children needed to be sheltered from material that was too coarse for them? The FCC once famously issued guidelines asking television networks to reserve the early hours of the evening for programs suitable for family viewing. A request the networks once scrupulously honored.
I mean, the old argument was: If you don't like it, turn it off. That notion doesn't begin to apply to the Internet, where you don't even have to go looking for smut because smut finds you.
Used to be, it was possible to carve out a safe place for children to live and grow, a haven where they were protected from the things of the grown-up world. Thanks to technological advances and human indifference, that possibility shrinks a little more every day. And we will mourn, if we have any sense, the resulting loss of innocence.
As I was signing her off, my daughter went to tell her mom about the gross things she had seen. "I'm never using dad's computer again," she said.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling toll-free at 1-800-457-3881.