Bill Bennett — former education secretary, former drug czar, best-selling author, and radio host, among other things — has recently become a senior adviser to a new company, Safe Communications, whose first product, MouseMail.com, is designed to help combat the problems of cyberbullying and sexting. During a week in which the White House is holding a summit on bullying, National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez talked to Bennett about this private-sector effort to help families.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Shouldn’t parents know who is texting their children, and what the communications are about?
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: On the first part, absolutely. On the second, yes, in ugly or bad cases. A key thing about allowing children to text and have smartphones is for parents to have a conversation with their children first — a very serious conversation. MouseMail and other products for older children require such a conversation and enhance it.
The way MouseMail works, parents have to first approve who is sending their child texts. They can of course add names any time, but the requirement of parental approval forces parents to be involved, to have that first (and, hopefully, ongoing) conversation with their child or children. As for the content of the e-mails and texting, once the parent approves the who, we do not encourage spying — the child can e-mail and text freely, so long as what he is sent, and is sending, is not vulgar language, bullying language, or sexting imagery. If the language goes that way, it is blocked and sent to the parents — for them to approve, or not approve, and go back to having that conversation with their child.
LOPEZ: Should kids even have phones?
BENNETT: I thought a lot about this before becoming involved in this company, Safe Communications. As I looked more and more at the research, the scholarly writing, and the data, I thought of this as being a good deal like computers and children. Our children now live in a digital age, where electronic communication, as one scholar put it, is not just “part of their life” but in many cases “is their life.”
Clearly, that’s too much, but there is a lot of it now; it is a very big part of children’s lives and will remain so — that’s undeniable. I saw the statistics showing that over 70 percent of teens text and that in the majority of cases parents want their children to have equipment such as smartphones — for all kinds of good reasons like security and being able to get in touch with their children and enabling their children to get in touch with them. I realized this is the world in which we live; children are going to spend a lot of time online, and we have to accompany them and help them. There are good things we can do to make our children’s digital lives safe.