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?
#ad#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.
#page#I think of driving, too: We’re not going to be able to keep our children who turn 16 from driving (at least not forever). But what we can do is encourage safe driving, explain to them why seatbelts are important, have airbags in the cars, and give them safe cars with a lot of instruction and conversation about the importance of being safe when they drive.
LOPEZ: What exactly is cyberbullying? How many children are experiencing it, and how badly?
#ad#BENNETT: This is a great and difficult question. Even the experts in psychology I have read admit it is a difficult thing to define. As Prof. Robin Kowalski and her Clemson University colleagues who have studied this write: “Cyberbullying casts a wide net that captures a number of different types of behaviors. Still, at its core, cyberbullying involves bullying through the use of technology such as the Internet and cellular phones . . . and it exists on a continuum of severity.”
As for how many and how badly, one of the disturbing things I’ve noted from all the research and polling I’ve read is that such research and polling becomes dated almost as soon as it’s published given the rapidity with which more and more children are going online and using mobile phones and home computers — and the younger and younger the children are when they start doing this.
I threw this question out to my audience on my radio show after a friend told me he knew of a nine-year-old with a cell phone who did a lot of texting. You can imagine what I heard next. Callers telling me about their children at age eight with cell phones. We see this taking place at even younger ages. In many cases, again, parents want their child to have a mobile phone: so the parents can stay in touch, and so the child can stay in touch. But then, as with a lot of tools originally meant to be used for all the right reasons, corrupt behavior can creep in, and ugly things can begin to take place, and it can create and has created predators on children.
What’s interesting to me about this is relating some of it to my old job as drug czar. Of course, we never want children to begin to even get close to drugs. But when a child does, from peer pressure or other reasons, a certain level of volition, of self-action has to take place. The child does have to take hold of a joint and inhale it, or whatever. Peer pressure may be behind it, but the child does have to act. With cyberbullying and sexting, that part is not true, and that’s what is so pernicious. A completely innocent child can be bombarded, without wanting anything to do with it, or even thinking about it.
As for how many, I’ve seen numbers showing that over 30 percent of teens have experienced some form of cyberharassment. My fear is that those numbers will go up.
LOPEZ: Something else has to be the reason for the increase in suicides, right? Deaths seem to be too easily explained by such fads, don’t they?
BENNETT: I almost despair of talking about this because the suicides we read of that are tied to cyberbullying and sexting are, yes, extreme cases. But when you Google these phrases, you see it.
#page#And suicide, at the extreme, is not the only problem. Again, to borrow from Robin Kowalski, what we see more of is such things as “depression, anxiety, social isolation, nervousness, lowered self-esteem, deficits in school performance, and impaired health.” These are things no parents would want for their child and no child would want.
LOPEZ: I do sometimes worry that we’re following the poll numbers of some sensationalistic media. Do you worry that we’re making too much of sexting and cyberbullying and whatever’s next?
#ad#BENNETT: I don’t. When I spoke about this on my radio show, I got a lot of calls and e-mails from parents and friends of parents with children who have been victimized. And some of the stories are just horrific. I think the research is pretty much in now: Cyberbullying and sexting are real problems of the digital age, and look to be getting worse, happening to younger and younger children. These experiences can leave an indelible mark on a child; they can alter childhood, and endanger children’s innocence.
LOPEZ: Are kids worse today? Are threats worse today? Are temptations worse today? Is this all just a new version of an old problem?
BENNETT: I simply don’t know. I do think the means and immediacy of danger do increase with advancements in access. Do we get more information in the digital age? Do we have more access to it? Good information — knowledge, works of great art and philosophy and theology? No question. But do we also get a proliferation and more access to a lot of bad — even dangerous — material? Yes, as well. And you know me — I don’t believe parents can just surrender. I never have. We still have to push back as hard as the age that pushes against us, to borrow from Flannery O’Connor.
LOPEZ: How does MouseMail work? Why would you get involved in it?
BENNETT: I was approached by a group of investors and thought leaders who had started looking into this issue, this growing problem. They asked me if I would speak with them and get involved. I had seen some stories on cyberbullying and sexting. Did some more research on it, became convinced of how pernicious the problem was. Then I met with them, a number of times, and decided that what they were doing was important and that perhaps I could be of some help.
As for how MouseMail works, in brief: MouseMail.com blocks harassing and sexting e-mails and texts sent to your child’s phone and home computer; and it blocks harassing and sexting e-mails from being sent from your child’s phone and home computer.
You simply take a BlackBerry, iPhone, or Droid and disable the standard text-message system (and don’t enable the e-mail system). You go to MouseMail.com and sign up for our program: $12.95 a month. The parents and child talk, the parents approve those who can send their child messages, and from then on the child will use MouseMail as his e-mail and texting platform.
#page#The child can go to MouseMail via his smartphone or home computer. And then he can e-mail and text safely — and the parents do not have to supervise or spy; they can have a sense of peace. MouseMail will catch and block any cyberbullying, vulgar, or sexting messages. All those messages then go to the parents, not the child. The parents can allow the message to go through or not. A child e-mails and texts safely through MouseMail; nothing goes to the parent unless it has objectionable content.
#ad#So, if you want your child or grandchild to have a smartphone, now you can; without the worry of all the terrible things we’ve read and heard about. If your child uses MouseMail as his e-mail and texting platform, he will be e-mailing and texting safely.
LOPEZ: This can’t be foolproof, can it?
BENNETT: One has to be very cautious in making such a guarantee. But we think we have the best checks and safeguards available. One often has to play catch-up to the dangers facing our children, but we’ve committed to staying very vigilant and to continually updating and improving, to try to stay ahead of the predators. As one of our leading people said to me, “We are committed to growing with families.”
LOPEZ: How do you know it’s for real? Endorsement is a precarious business, isn’t it?
BENNETT: Yes. This is a bit of a joke at my radio syndicate, where the sales people get nervous when they approach me with a product to sell, knowing I turn down so many of their prospects. I have to spend a lot of time thinking about and looking at something. I’ve done that with Safe Communications. I did a lot of research on this and spoke to several experts in the field. I’ve been to the company headquarters; I’ve spent a lot of time with the people who designed it. And before I signed on, I saw to it that I would have a lot of say both in who would be on the board and in how the company would promote and continually redesign and improve this product (as one needs to do with any digital technology). I really like this team and am proud to be a part of it.
LOPEZ: So how do parents teach virtue in this environment?
BENNETT: It all begins with, it has to begin with, a conversation between a parent or both parents and a child. This is similar to the work we’ve done on preventing drug use. The more the parents talk about it with the child — and the more time a child and his parents talk generally — the less likely is such dangerous behavior. I’m in favor of more parent-child conversation, and MouseMail and Safe Communications’ other products require this, beginning with a talk about who is an approved communicator with the child. We also give parents access to information about cyberbullying, sexting, and safe communication.
There is no substitute for parents, but we can look for and make helpful auxiliaries available. As Charles Eliot, a former president of Harvard, once put it: “In the campaign for character, no auxiliaries are to be refused.”
LOPEZ: Is the Internet a dangerous thing for families?
BENNETT: It certainly can be. It can also be a great tool. Used in moderation, used correctly, the Internet can be a great instrument for research, for accessing and downloading works of great knowledge, information, beauty. Used wrongly, it can be an instrument for accessing trash. It can be dangerous. Texts and e-mails can be shocking and degrading; they can also be uplifting and memorable — I think of the many wonderful messages from my children that I’ve received and saved. Like fire, the Internet can be used for good or ill; man has to tame it.
I think in the end I go back to St. Paul and his dictum. Whether you are religious or not, it is still a good rule on these things: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” I would say “focus on” such things. But that rule is timeless.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.