The history of civilization is the history of sending children out into the world. The child of a 17th-century weaver would have been raised and educated at home, prey to the diseases and domestic accidents of his time, but protected from strangers who meant him harm. As the spheres of home and work began to separate, cleaving parents from their sons and daughters, children faced dangers of an altogether different kind. The world is not, nor has it ever been, full of people who prey upon children. But it has always had more than enough of them, and it always will. Think of the Children’s Crusade: Several thousand children marched out of Cologne to liberate the Holy Land but barely made it to Brindisi; they ended up dead or sold into sex slavery, an army of innocents easily picked off within a few weeks’ march from home.
With the Internet, children are marching out into the world every second of every day. They’re sitting in their bedrooms—wearing their retainers, topped up with multivitamins, radiating the good care and safekeeping that is their lot in life in America at the beginning of the new century—and they’re posting photographs of themselves, typing private sentiments, unthinkingly laying down a trail of bread crumbs leading straight to their dance recitals and Six Flags trips and Justin Timberlake concerts, places where anyone with an interest in retainer-wearing 13-year-olds is free to follow them. All that remains to be seen is whether anyone will follow them, and herein lies a terrifying uncertainty, which neither skeptics nor doomsayers can deny: The Internet has opened a portal into what used to be the inviolable space of the home, through which anything, harmful or harmless, can pass. It won’t be closing anytime soon—or ever—and all that parents can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Those preparing for the worst will find their darkest fears realized in To Catch a Predator. The show is a spin-off of the news program Dateline NBC, and every episode features the same satisfying format: The network has partnered with an organization called Perverted Justice, which is dedicated to luring and then busting the creepy men who use the Internet to seduce youngsters. The team creates a decoy: an online presence claiming to be a teenager who eagerly participates in increasingly pornographic online chat with an adult male. The “teen” arranges an assignation—the parents are supposedly out of town for the weekend—and the scumbag wanders into a setup par excellence: NBC has the house rigged with cameras and microphones, local law enforcement is watching the whole thing from a van parked at the curb, and cops are hiding in the bushes ready to bring the guy down if he bolts.
What makes the show so fantastic is not only the deeply satisfying element of watching justice instantly meted out. It’s also that before the perp gets cuffed and loaded into the paddy wagon he’s grilled by the show’s host/anchor, a journalist named Chris Hansen, who in every episode gets to deliver, straight-faced, lines that sound like they come from a Will Ferrell movie, as when he confronts a pedophile (hell-bent on bestiality and dessert) with the evidence against him: “You’re naked. There’s a 14-year-old girl. You’re chasing a cat around. You’ve got Cool Whip.” The show’s been on the air long enough that when Hansen suddenly walks into the room and confronts the predator, it’s a bit like the moment when Allen Funt would suddenly show up in the middle of a screwy day at the dry cleaners. (“I knew it!” the perps sometimes say when Hansen appears.)
To Catch a Predator puts an innocent in contact with a trickster and then allows the inevitable to take place. But after you watch a few episodes, it dawns on you that the naifs in this equation are actually the idiot perverts who take the bait and end up in the slammer. Calling this sad-sack collection of wankers and flashers “predators” accords them a level of evil genius they haven’t earned; most of them look like they couldn’t track down the towel department in a Wal-Mart. I won’t lie: Sweet little Mary may swear like a sailor when she logs on to MySpace; but unless she’s the kind of gal who responds to a stranger’s request to “cum in you” with a cheery “I don’t want to get preggers!” she should be safe. And a significant number of the decoys who successfully lure predators are male, a fact that one senses is a grave disappointment to the producers and probably reveals less about Internet crimes than about one of the sad, old truths about sexual initiation for gay teenage boys.
Hansen has written a book about the program, which he created. The book is also called To Catch a Predator, and its subtitle—“Protecting Your Kids From Online Enemies Already in Your Home”—is true to the spirit of the show, which involves both informing viewers and scaring the bejesus out of them. When I was a kid, the most frightening moment in horror movies occurred when the terrified girl learned that the creepy telephone caller was making his calls from “inside the house.” It never made any sense—nobody had two phone lines back then. But the idea itself was horrifying enough to warrant a bit of poetic license. The sensation of being home—safe, behind locked doors—must have some strong hold on the human psyche, because we’re particularly outraged and horrified by crimes that occur to people in their own houses. As hideous as the Polly Klaas kidnapping-and- murder case was, it had an added resonance because the 12-year-old had been in her own room—home—before she was taken into the night and killed. Hansen’s subtitle, lurid though it may be, speaks to the fear that makes parents so queasy: Flooding through that Internet connection are any number of people whose interest in their children could be predatory.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintains that one out of five kids who use the Internet has been propositioned for sex. It’s hard to know just how accurately such events can be quantified, and when I first read the statistic, I found it hard to believe that, if indeed so many children were being propositioned, more parents weren’t uniting in outrage, rather than wiring up their kids at a blistering pace. My friends with teenagers were very open with them and were well-informed about the dangers of the Internet; I couldn’t imagine one out of five of those kids being propositioned by a stranger and not telling their parents.
But Hansen provides a second bit of information that made me wonder if that statistic wasn’t in fact on the low side. As part of the first episode of his show, Hansen convened a panel of tweens and teens, among them children of some of his colleagues at NBC, and asked how many of them had been “approached online by someone in a sexual way that made you feel uncomfortable.” Almost all the kids raised their hands. Then he asked how many had told their parents. Not a hand went up. And when he asked why they hadn’t told their parents, all the kids in the room said they didn’t tell because they didn’t want their parents to take away their Internet connections.
Suddenly, it all made sense to me: Teenagers don’t tell their parents that someone nasty got through to them for the same reason I didn’t tell my parents that kids were dropping acid at a party—because they wouldn’t let me go to those parties anymore. That’s the horrible, inescapable fact of coming of age: The moment you choose the world over your parents, you’ve chosen to make your own decisions about what’s safe and what’s not, with only your own wits to protect you.