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July/August 1999
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The Internet and the Family: The View from the Press
By Joseph Turow <jturow@asc.upenn.edu>, John Bracken, and Lilach Nir

Excerpted from The Internet and the Family: The View from Parents, the View from the Press, (c) 1999, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 3620 Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.


"Your children need the Internet. But, if they do go online, be terrified."
That's the message that the American press presents to parents, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center's examination of articles in 12 major U.S. newspapers that mentioned the Internet and the family, parents, or children from October 15, 1997, to October 15, 1998.

We did find examples of articles that tried to help families assess the problems and potential of the new Web world in a reasoned way. Overall, however, the Web presented the Internet as a Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon over which parents are left to take control with little community backup.

The press's portrayal of the Internet is particularly significant because it directly reflects the results of the national survey presented in part 1 of the report. The great majority of American parents with computers in the home is conflicted about the Web. Parents feel it's necessary, but they fear it.

Most likely, this split view gets constructed in the press because of journalists' need to fill separate news holes-those dealing with news as conflict and those dealing with so-called news you can use. Journalists separately pick up and amplify conflict-based and news-you-can-use topics regarding the Web. News consumers are alarmed by and interested in the concerns that the press portrays. Journalists, noting this, give more of what becomes the conventional wisdom about the Internet in this manner.

Are there alternatives?

The Internet is here to stay. So is the family. At this formative stage in the family's relationship with the Internet, it is critical for journalists to help parents and children evaluate the new world in ways that help parents and children best make sense of their lives and their society.

The Study and the Method

Our investigation was a content analysis of articles in 12 daily U.S. newspapers from October 15, 1997, through October 15, 1998. Listed in table 13, six of the papers are among the nation's 10 largest in circulation, and the other six rank from 40th to 50th in circulation. In locating articles for the analysis, we decided that for our purpose a "family" was at least one parent with at least one school-age child. We then conducted a search on the Lexis/Nexis database for every article in those papers during the year that (1) mentioned the Internet, AOL, Web, or online and (2) included the words family, families, child, children, parent, parents, youth, or teens. The search yielded 668 relevant

Table 13

We designed a questionnaire to answer two broad questions about the articles:
1. What issues do the papers raise about the Internet and the family?
2. What kinds of people speak about the Internet and the family in the articles, and what do they say?

Our questionnaire explored these questions in several ways. Regarding the issues, we asked about where the papers placed the articles, what topics the articles raised, whether the topics centered on problems or benefits of the Web for the family, whether the articles discussed attempts at solutions, and more. Regarding the people in the articles, we noted their occupations, the organizations at which they worked, what they said about the Web, whether it was a problem or a benefit, whether they had solutions for the problems, and more.

We divided the entire set of 668 articles among eight University of Pennsylvania students whom we had trained to use the questionnaire and had tested for reliability. They read and coded the articles according to the questionnaire. We entered the resulting data into a computer for analysis.

The Topics in the Articles

As table 14 shows, when articles mentioned the Internet and the family, the overwhelming majority-97.2 percent-did so in terms of the problems and/or benefits of the Web. About two-thirds of the pieces described problems, and about half described the Web's benefits. These discussions were quite separate, however. As table 14 shows, only 16 percent of the pieces mixed problems and benefits.

Table 14

Discussions of benefits in the articles were so subtly varied that we found they could not be coded reliably into particular categories. Consequently, we divided the benefits into two broad categories: those related to social effects of the Web and those related to the Web's psychological effects. We defined social effects as those that impact on the activities between people; using e-mail to keep in touch with relatives is an example. We defined psychological effects as those that impact on the mental activities of people; a Web site that to helps a child read or improves the knowledge of family members are instances of psycholog-ical effects.

Table 15 presents the benefits. The numbers add up to more than 100 percent because coders reliably found up to two benefits in the 331 articles that noted a benefit. The table indicates that the Web's utility was noted much more often in relation to children than in relation to the family as a whole. Psychological utility received more mentions than social utility.

Table 15

Unlike the broad and scattered discussion of the Internet's benefits, discussion of the Web's problems centered on a small number of rather specific dangers. Table 16 presents the problems. Again, the numbers add up to more than 100 percent because we found that the coders could reliably record up to two problems in the 429 articles that noted one or more of them.

Table 16

A number of startling points emerge in the table. First, sex and sex crimes related to the Web and children received much attention, making up 53 percent of all the problems. Second, a large number of articles discussed Web sites that are improper for children because they promote activities that children should not be doing, like drinking, smoking, and using illegal drugs. Third, articles were so fixated on outside influences preying on children for purposes of sex, improper activities, and privacy invasion that all other issues mentioned regarding the Internet and the family made up only 5 percent of the total. These other issues included parents' management of children's Internet time; supervision of Internet use at home and school; commercialism and the Web; the Web and parents' careers; hate groups on the Web; income divisions among Web haves and have-nots; and negative social and psychological implications of the Web for the family. Discussions of race and the Web-either problems or benefits-were mentioned only seven times in our entire sample.

The People Quoted in the Articles

We asked how many people journalists quoted about problems and benefits of the Web, who they were, and what they said. Going through the 668 articles in our sample, we found 663 people whose comments the articles cited. Of all of the sources quoted, educators, journalists, and businesspeople were the most positive in portraying the Web's relationship to the family. About 60 percent of the time that these individuals appeared in articles, they mentioned potential benefits of the Internet. But their positive views didn't appear very much. As table 17 indicates, educators and journalists together made up less than 13 percent of the people who were quoted.

Businesspeople made up 17 percent of the sources, and they viewed the Web favorably 40 percent of the time. They mixed positive and negative comments about the Web's effects on the family 11 percent of the time. They were wholly negative 43 percent of the time.

In fact, the great majority of the people whom the articles cited about the Web tended to emphasize negative views of the Internet's effect on the family. Three-fourths of them noted problems on the Web; only one fourth mentioned benefits. Moreover, half of the problems focused on sex: pedophilia, child pornography, and pornography.

The emphasis on problems, and most particularly on sex crimes, is reflected in the occupations of people whose comments reporters cited most often in the articles. As table 17 indicates, government and criminal justice sources-for example, police, pros-ecutors, and defense attorneys-made up 20 percent and 18 percent of the sources, respectively. Government and criminal justice sources also portray the Web in the most negative manner of all occupations. Their comments were unfavorable 90 percent of the time. Representatives of advocacy organizations were also highly negative, though they weren't nearly as common. They saw the Web's influence favorably only 3 percent of the time.

Table 17

Solutions to the Problems

Articles that noted problems about the Web and the family described attempts to solve them 85 percent of the time. Table 18 presents the kinds of individuals and organizations involved in those attempts and the percentage of articles in which they appeared. It indicates that government, parents, business, and the criminal justice system (police, the criminal courts) figured most prominently in trying to find a way out of the frightening issues posed for parents and children by the Web. The articles mentioned the individuals or organizations by themselves a bit more than half-55 percent-of the time. In a bit less than half-45 percent-of the articles, solutions involved more than one type of actor. Parents and business and parents and government were most common.

Table 18

Reporters' attention to parents along with business or government in discussing answers to Web crime, pornography, and privacy invasions should not be taken to mean that the answers showed parents working with executives and elected officials. To the contrary, the press depicted each party in its own domain. The federal government was making laws to try to stop the scourges. Businesses were developing Web-filtering software that parents could purchase. Police and the criminal courts were arresting and incarcerating pedophiles and child pornographers.

But the press presented the activities of these institutions as piecemeal, tentative, or muddled. Arresting and convicting individual child molesters would not accomplish much if, as the articles implied, many more molesters could be lurking in cyberspace. Using filtering software would not be helpful if, as the articles related, the software blocked children from useful areas of the Web. And government actions regarding explicit sexuality and the invasion of privacy often were depicted as protracted inaction as Constitutional free speech issues and concerns of business marketers slowed lawmakers.

The upshot was that the press placed on parents the burden of dealing most immediately with Web problems. Some articles showed devastated parents interacting with police and the courts over their harmed children. Other articles suggested a wide range of actions to counter the dangers of the Web by monitoring their children's Web activities, going online with their kids, looking for good Web sites, and using filters to block bad sites. Unfortunately, the articles typically depicted themselves as the only avenues of support. They did not portray the local community-teachers, librarians, and neighborhood groups-as resources. At the everyday level, the press showed parents facing a useful but scary Web virtually alone.

Joseph Turow is Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania. John Bracken and Lilach Nir are graduate students at the Annenberg School. Cory Allen, Mikaila Brown, Laura Ducceschi, Talya Gould, Rachna Patel, Brenda Sheth, and Lynda Tran, students at the University, assisted with this proj-ect.

A complete copy of the The Internet and the Family: The View from Parents, the View from the Press by Joseph Turow is available for downloading at the Annenberg Public Policy Center Web site at http://www.appcpenn.org/.

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