The Saving Mission of Operation Kids: Does Media and Technology Have to Corrupt Our Children?
“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For Rick Larsen and Dennis Webb, two of the founders of Operation Kids, that is the test of morality of their company, whose goal is to use media and technology to enhance the lives of children. Their first product is ContentWatch, an Internet solution for anybody who ever loved a child. Find out about the details of ContentWatch at the end of this article.
The son he lost suddenly at ten-years-old from spinal meningitis would have been just about the age of the soon-to-be missionaries he works with in his ward, thinks Stewart Park, executive vice-president of Operation Kids. He’s passionate about being the priests’ quorum adviser; he loves the young men he serves as if they were his own. Caring about them helps fill the void in his life left by his son’s passing.
But working with them brings him worries, too. “It’s a lot tougher world to grow up in than when we were kids,” Stewart says.
It’s the spoken and unspoken sentiment of most parents who long for a better world for their children, safe from the raucous assaults upon them that are part of the every day fare of life in a media-drenched, immoral world. Many know that they are fighting for the very souls of their children against decadence and darkness brought to them in living color on the most sophisticated communications tools ever created in any dispensation.
“I took a group of the young men down to southern Utah on a trip, and they asked some questions I found disturbing in the way they see things and what they are exposed to,” Stewart says. What could he or anybody do to help them?
Enter Operation Kids
It was this kind of nagging concern for youth and children that motivated Rick Larsen and Dennis Webb to create the idea for Operation Kids (ok.com), a Utah-based social benefits company. Dennis was fresh home from serving as a mission president in Virginia; Rick had been working in production and acquisitions for a film company, and both were fired up about the possibility of harnessing today’s cutting-edge communications tools to enhance and enrich the lives of children.
They conceptualized a plan where they would create an Internet portal, an entrance to cyperspace that would gather together the best ideas, products, services and possibilities for children and families. Here a community of families could gather and share ideas and be directed to other places and products on the web that were OK, Operations Kids-approved. They could also create media that would appeal to families.
Rick Larsen, president of Operation Kids said, “Hollywood makes parents all across the country feel that they are the only ones who feel bombarded and assaulted by the media. They think, ‘Maybe everybody else is more enlightened than I am.’ That is why community is so important. I speak to parents and women’s groups all across the country. The attitudes are exactly the same. They feel outnumbered. They feel worried. In their hectic lives, they want help in making informed media choices and finding quality for their family.”
Parents feel they work hard to teach their children values of significance, and then are insidiously outmaneuvered by the media and Internet which has become the pervasive and relentless educator of our children.
Rick continued, “Working with film, I have personally come to realize the power of media and how it can shape opinions because it is with us every day, and I also came to know that the Internet is probably the most potent innovation of all media and technology.” Could this tool be harnessed for the education and benefit of children and families, or was it merely to become a weapon of immense destructive proportions as pornographers took its reigns and used it to corrupt its captives?
The history of television offered a compelling and frightening parallel.
In 1921, while still a schoolboy, Mormon inventor Philo T. Farnsworth brainstormed much of the guts of “electronic television” as he tilled a potato field in Idaho. By 1935 Farnsworth was broadcasting to a handful of homemade television sets from his experimental TV station W3XPF in Philadelphia. Farnsworth confidently predicted that TV would be the greatest teacher ever.
His widow, Elma, wrote, “[Phil] saw television as a marvelous teaching tool– Parents could learn along with their children– He said there would be a time when we would be able to see and learn about people in other lands. If we understood them better, differences could be settled around conference tables, without going to war.”
But once he actually started filling airtime, Farnsworth also discovered television’s gigantic and often indiscriminate appetite. Soured by the whole experience, Farnsworth became one of TV’s earliest critics. His son, Kent, recalled that when he was a boy, the inventor of television wouldn’t allow his own children to watch his brainchild.
That’s because the visual nature of television– the very thing that makes it such a marvelous teacher– also makes it a dicey tutor; the lessons of which any Sunbeam can grasp. On “Jerry Springer” we learn that trading punches is a legitimate way to solve problems. On Howard Stern’s televised radio show we learn how to shave a women’s “bikini line.”
But long before Jerry Springer scripted his first fistfight, former FCC Chairman Newton Minnow condemned television’s tendency to degradation and filth. In 1961 Minnow decried TV as “vast wasteland.” Its gaping maw– which must be filled 24 x 7– meant that first expediency and later vulgarity tended to weigh more heavily in programming decisions than refinement and intelligence. Its visual nature meant that anyone “at any age” could comprehend its stories, no matter how silly or profane.
“The Farnsworth Effect”
The tendency of all the visual media– television, film, video games, and the Internet– to degrade to the lowest common denominator in inverse proportion to the bandwidth of the media we might call the Farnsworth Effect.. As the pipe widens, The Farnsworth Effect predicts that in rushes a host of programming that is sometimes wonderful, but more often mediocre, and too often coarse or harmful.
The lessons of The Farnsworth Effect can be equally applied to movies, video games and the World Wide Web. Sixty years ago movies were character-driven studies of human nature. Twenty years ago video games were mostly sports-based. Ten years ago the Internet was mostly about shrinking distances via email. Now violent video games teach our youth how to “preserve their ammo” when killing human-like on-screen foes. On the Internet, just two screens from any mainstream portal is a miasma of filth, pornography and violence. The Farnsworth Effect predicts that the visual media are leading society in a race to the bottom, and exposing even our youngest children to experiences and images which are corrupting.
The founders of Operation Kids saw that to use technology and media to improve the lives of children, they first had to find a more effective way to protect them when they use the Internet. The Internet could be a place for children to expand their minds and education, but they could also get caught in a dark web when they least expected it.
Before the Internet, pornographers had long looked for easy entre into the home; the industry’s growth had been stunted by the public shame that comes with walking into an adults-only store. Mark Kreloff, president and CEO of New Frontier Media, a publicly traded pornography company, told MSNBC, “99 percent of what we are selling as a company is the ability of our consumers to get access to our content discreetly and in the privacy of their own home.”
Now, as Victor Cline observed, ” The Internet has turned every home in America into the largest porn store in the world. You’ve got this combination of questionable marketing tactics, unlimited access, graphic violent images and kids.”
Unhampered by public stigma, the public has stormed its way onto porn sites, and the online pornography industry has exploded. In 1999, cyberporn sales totaled eight percent of total online sales of $18 billion, according to US News & World Report; more than online airline ticket sales and about that same as online book sales. Unburdened by high advertising or labor costs, adult sites enjoy 30 percent profit margins. The New York Times reports that a single profitable cyberporn web site now does as much business as the whole of the retail hard-core porn industry did 30 years ago.
Though no one is safe from the siren allure of pornography, children are particularly vulnerable. Like sharp-toothed predators dripping with malice, pornographers stalk children with a variety of insidious tactics. They buy up web addresses that are only a slight misspelling away from a brand name, a toy, a car attractive to children. They capture common words that children would check online, looking for other information. They form a pornographic website around the name of a children’s book. What’s more, once a child has stumbled upon a site, pornographers catch them in a loop so it is difficult to get off. They may record who has visited the site, to lure them again.
The Federal report “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth,” published in June 2000 suggests just how defenseless the nation’s youth are to online porn and sexual solicitation.
One in four of 10-17 year-olds had an “unwanted” exposure to pictures of naked people or people having sex
Nearly 20 percent had received an online sexual solicitation sometime in the prior year
One in 33 were aggressively solicited, that is, the petitioner asked for a face-to-face meeting, called them on the phone, or sent them regular mail, money or gifts.
What’s a Concerned Parent to Do?
“There is a world of knowledge and information online now,” says Rick Larsen, “And it would be a shame if thoughtful parents had to turn our backs on the ‘net just because the experience can’t be made safe for children and families.” That’s why Operation Kids endorses ContentWatch, an easy-to-use and install Internet solution that makes the Internet safe for families. “If I could, I’d fly over in a plane and drop them from the sky so that everyone could have one,” Rick said. “People have heard a lot about filters and sometimes get discouraged because often they are hard to install or are so basic that they do little good.”
What makes ContentWatch unique is that websites are filtered and monitored at three levels.
First, all web traffic is routed through a dedicated proxy server, where all the websites that customers call up in their browsers are compared against a database of 1.2 million known pornographic, violent and hate sites. If the site is on the list, access is denied. Since pornographers frequently add or change URLs, approximately 300 new sites are electronically discovered and added to the database every day.
The second level of filtering occurs on the customer’s computer. More than 400 offensive words, collected directly from pornographer’s websites, come preinstalled in ContentWatch’s “black list.” ContentWatch customers can easily add or subtract URLs and words from the black list.
And, unlike lesser Internet filters, Content Watch is sophisticated enough to allow website searches on subjects like “chicken breast” recipes. Which means that students can still do online research on perfectly legitimate subjects.
But ContentWatch’s most unique feature is its monthly statement.. Each month parents receive in the regular mail a report that details all computer usage, both online and off. The statements will, for instance, highlight every attempt made to access an objectionable site. But they will also compare usage statistics month to month. The value of this feature is that parents now have a tool that tells them exactly how their home computer is used, or perhaps misused.
“I envision the practical benefits,” said Larsen. “I imagine parents everywhere opening this statement and really understanding, perhaps for the first time, how much time their kids are spending online. Even if there’s no problem with objectionable material, you may still decide it’s time they get their vitamin D from the sun.
Rick Larsen, Dennis Webb, Stewart Park and the crew at Operation Kids are motivated by a world they see crumbling and the possibilities that if they create a community of caring parents, they can make a difference and that parents won’t feel so alone in the battle for their children’s minds and hearts.
ContentWatch is available for sale at the Operation Kids website, OK.com for a one-time fee of $49.95, which includes 90 days of free monitoring and a membership in the Operation Kids community. The monitoring and membership are $5.95 a month thereafter and include all future upgrades. ContentWatch is available online at OK.com or by calling toll free 1-877-339-2824.
With the sale of each copy of ContentWatch, Operations Kids, Inc. will make a $2 donation to the Operation Kids Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit children’s charity dedicated to providing fundraising and other support for charities that serve children’s education, safety, environment, health, welfare and well being.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.