Epidemic of stupidity

John Ostrowski

6/26/2006 12:01:00 AM - John Ostrowski

The latest trend in society is to lay all blame on inanimate and objectively neutral things. For instance, Morgan Spurlock’s propaganda fest Super-Size Me and the lawsuits against fast-food companies are indicative of the national trend shirking the traditional concept of personal responsibility for the easier and less responsible notion that personal problems are undoubtedly society’s problem and therefore the burden for solving them should fall on society. Another example of this epidemic of stupidity would be lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

Much of the time, the objects at the center of the question are morally neutral, as many inanimate objects are–a cheeseburger, a gun, a cigarette. Calls for banning these things are illogical at best, as they all have legitimate uses and their use only results in morally evil actions when the actor himself poses morally evil intentions (and acts on such). Yet the idiocy continues, this time with the popular social networking Web Site MySpace.com.

This time, a 14-year-old Texas girl and her mother are suing MySpace and 19-year-old Pete Solis because the girl was sexually assaulted by Solis after the two interacted on MySpace. The lawsuit is asking for $30 million from the News Corp.-owned company and cites the Web site’s seemingly unenforceable policy that strangers older than 16 may not contact users under 14 and that users must be 14 years old to create a profile.

The 14-year-old was first contacted by Solis in April. Then, after the two exchanged e-mails and phone calls throughout May, Solis picked the girl up at her school and proceeded to sexually assault her at an apartment later that day.

The case is a sad one to hear and, unfortunately, is similar to other occurrences on MySpace. In both Connecticut and Wisconsin, men in their 20s have been charged with sexually assaulting young teenagers. Less than a month ago a 16-year-old was intercepted by U.S. authorities in Jordan en route to rendezvousing with a 20-year-old in Israel.

Sadly, these are only a few of the many cases involving MySpace or sexual predators. However, the fact that MySpace and other social networking sites have proven ideal hunting grounds for sexual predators does not mean that individual members of society can shirk responsibility for unfortunate situations they find themselves in.

The fact remains that MySpace itself is not intrinsically evil. Yes, there is the potential for evil in the site, but there is also the potential for good. So a lawsuit alleging that MySpace did not adequately protect users misplaces blame, just like lawsuit against gun-manufacturers and fast-food companies misplace blame.

There are, of course, legitimate means to ensure a child’s safety. The Deleting Online Predators Act, introduced by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-P.A.) is similar to the Child Online Protection Act: schools and libraries receiving federal funds must block children’s access to social networking sites. Once again, in areas where the government has some type of jurisdiction (public schools and libraries), it rightly can look to protect the safety of minors. For some reason, extreme free-speech advocates find a problem with both COPA and now DOPA, because they view them as some type of governmental intrusion on free speech. This illogical stance ignores the fact that American citizens can and do cede their rights when they engage in certain actions; it follows that libraries and schools can cede certain First Amendment rights in choosing to receive federal funds. MySpace itself is even looking to make these somewhat safer. New restrictions are being planned that will limit contact between users older than 18 and users younger than 18. Of course, in private homes, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of parents.

The mother of the 14-year-old should therefore not look to blame someone else for what seems to be her inability to monitor her child’s activity at home. No one will deny that charges should be pressed against Polis for sexually assaulting a minor. Placing oneself in danger does not excuse the evil actions of others. Hard as it may be for the woman to admit, she has failed as a parent. While some will look to blame the lawsuit on greed, the better bet is probably that no parent wants to believe that they have let their child down, If a court agrees with the woman’s claim that MySpace is at fault, in some bizarre way her own sense of guilt will probably be diminished.

Essentially, MySpace can be likened to a virtual playground in that it gives children a place to play. Responsible parents do not let their immature, emotionally underdeveloped wreak havoc at a playground; in fact, they work to instill in their child (and reality often calls for something more than stern verbal warnings) the common sense and values necessary to behave well without parental supervision. The bad parents either think that disciplining is bad or don’t care enough to take an interest in their child’s development—these are the ones who end up suing for $30 million because they have no concept of individual responsibility. And just like real playgrounds, virtual playgrounds attract less than appealing characters—namely, sexual predators.

Imagine a similar situation that does not occur online: a minor makes contact with a stranger at a public playground, the stranger abducts the minor and commits a sexual crime. This reprehensible act on the part of the sexual pervert should be punished, but should the minor and her parent be able to sue the town in which the public playground is located? The town may even have had an ordinance banning sexual criminals from visiting playgrounds when children are present, but their inability to enforce the law should not mean that a parent—who probably should have been there in the first place—can sue the town. Virtual playgrounds—such as MySpace—are no different.