The heart of the Net

Eloping in cyberspace. It was bound to happen.
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The Independent Culture
A TEENAGE girl loses her head and falls in love with a man twice her age. Her desperate parents try to stop her contacting the man, but that only makes him more alluring. Then the inevitable happens. In spite of all the efforts of her parents to prevent it, the girl runs off with her beau and heads for Gretna Green.

It's an everyday story. A minor tragedy that has been repeating itself for hundreds of years. Yet the story of 16 year-old Kelly Ann Fury and her 34-year old American boyfriend David Holford has made national headlines. Holford has been arrested and Fury's parents have requested she be made a ward of court. But why all this fuss? Simple: Holford and Fury met on the Internet.

A recent attitude survey showed that most people in this country still associate the Internet with financial fraud, pornography and pdophilia. It's hardly surprising, then, that this mundane story of a young girl (above the legal age of consent) and an older man should have stirred up such hysteria.

It's true that the Net is a sexualised environment, but no more so than the average pub or disco. It's true too that email is a sort of fantasy factory where normally reserved people often feel free to communicate much more intimately than they might do on the phone, or face to face.

That said, the Net changes nothing. Teenage girls have always had access to sexually charged environments. Fourteen-year-olds regularly trowel on the slap and slip into something slinky to get themselves into pubs and over-18 nightclubs. And as for fantasy, teenage love affairs are almost by definition fantasies, projections of some idealised notion of romance. That's precisely why we call them puppy love.

The point is that nothing happens on the Net that doesn't already happen in the "real" world. We persist in the lie that anything - whether it be teenage folly or credit card fraud - that happens in cyberspace must be more troubling, more outrageous, more downright wrong than if it happens in "real life". On the one hand we expect the wired world to be a prelapsarian Eden, and on the other, we condemn it as an electronic Sodom and Gomorrah.

Jacquie Disney of the Parents' Information Network, an organisation set up to support parents whose children use computers and the Net, argues that the Net has been demonised. "It's used to whip up all sorts of hysteria. The Net is no worse than chat lines or meeting people in the pub. Some will take advantage and others won't."

The simple fact that seems to have got lost in all the Holford fury is that teenagers of both sexes have always had a taste for forbidden fruit. To teenage girls, older men are fearsomely alluring. And that's hardly surprising since boys of their own age seem like babies.

When I was 16, my best friend Julia began an affair with the village milkman, a married man in his late 30s. This was widely known and tutted over, but it was assumed that my friend would get over it. As, indeed, she did. No-one saw the need to involve the police, the courts and the media for the simple reason that it was none of the police's, courts' or media's business.

A while ago I visited Walthamstow Girls' School in London's East End to talk to the pupils about their newly-installed Internet connection. The Net had expanded their horizons. By logging on to the Net they could access data from the Antarctic and pictures of outer space and most of their time was taken up with just this kind of exploration.

Once, when their teacher left the room, they hastily quit the Antarctic and logged on to another school's chat forum where they spent a merry 10 minutes flirting with the lads from a local boys' school. In other words, they did exactly what all schoolchildren do. The cat was away and they played.

For girls in single-sex education, or for the shy or simply inexperienced, flirting harmlessly on the Net may well help develop confidence and understanding. The Net can provide a safe space, where girls can learn to communicate and, yes, flirt with the opposite sex without being pre- judged on their physical appearance.

There will always be those teens who take their experiments too far, who have sex too early and with inappropriate partners, who don't know when to say stop to drink or no to drugs. Jacquie Disney advises parents to put the family computer in an open access area of the house and "try to instill commonsense as you would with any social activity they might be engaged in".

Neither Kelly Ann Fury nor David Holford were committing any crime in running away together. Fury even completed her GCSEs before she went. There was nothing, as far as we know, to suggest that the relationship was abusive or exploitative. It was simply ill-judged. Fury and Holford have made their mistakes. And in making hysterical judgements about the Internet on very little evidence, we continue to make ours.

The PIN helpline number is 0891 633644. They have a number of free guides on computing for parents