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Children must learn to live in the online world

24 January 2014

Don't see the internet as merely dangerous to them, urges Vicky Beeching. Engage with it, and help them to use it responsibly

AN AMERICAN journalist, Gloria Borger, said: "For the press, good news is not news." And positive stories rarely make the headlines when it comes to children and technology. Instead, there has been a stream of chilling reports about the sinister side of the web. Cyber-bullying is on the rise, resulting in teenagers' self-harming, and, in tragic cases such as those of Hannah Smith and Tallulah Wilson, taking their own lives."

This week, a new survey from the charity Young Minds was published, revealing that half of 11-14-year-olds had viewed online porn. One in four who had done so said that it had directly affected his or her relationships with others. Lucie Russell, director of the campaign, concluded that it revealed an "unprecedented toxic climate" faced by young people in a "24/7 online culture, where they can never switch off".

In the light of this, those caring for children may feel an understandable urge simply to switch off their online access. This was the gist of the advice given by the Prime Minister when he commented on cyber-bullying, back in the summer: "There's something all of us can do as parents and as users of the internet: not use some of these vile sites. Boycott them. Don't go there. Don't join them." His words resulted in many parents' blaming the sites rather than the trolls that inhabited them, and banning their teenagers from social networks altogether.

Mr Cameron's advice may appear sensible, but knee-jerk reactions are insufficient when it comes to children, young people, and the internet: we need to look at the bigger picture, and develop a more nuanced strategy. Throughout the history of technology, we have met new developments with a sense of panic. The dawn of printing was greeted with predictions that it would ruin society. So was the birth of radio, and of television. Frequently, the advice given about children and innovations has been: "Switch it off! Keep them away!"

Yet to equip children not just to survive, but to thrive in a digital world, we have to do better than that.

TECHNOLOGY is a tool. It is not entirely neutral, but it is predominantly neutral, and capable equally of good and harm. Increasingly, the internet is presented as something negative that we must wage war against. This personifies the tool, and gives it a power that should instead be ascribed to us, the moral choice-makers. While we are busy blaming the tool, we fail to take responsibility ourselves.

Digital technology is as malleable in our hands as the other innovations we use every day: fire can be used to warm us, or to burn and destroy. A car can be used to get us safely from A to B, or to drive dangerously and take lives. We wrongly demonise these tools if we see their potential weighted toward negativity. If we accept that we can control the tool, we take the power back.

Banning children or young people from online access is only a temporary plaster on a wound. Labelling anything as forbidden usually makes it more attractive. So children who are below the age-restrictions set on certain sites are more likely to have profiles that are kept secret from family members. The NSPCC's report on younger children and social networking (November 2013) found that "around half of 11- and 12-year-olds in the UK have an under-age profile" on websites that require a minimum age of 13.

Social networks that are specially designed for the under-13s are one helpful way to tackle this. "What's What", "Togetherville", and "ScuttlePad" are examples of these. They feature strong parental oversight, and induct children into a healthy, balanced use of networks.

Online culture creates a different experience of childhood from the one that most adults experienced. An important Open University study (2011) exploded the myth of the "digital native" - the idea that the pre-internet generation stands across a chasm from the post-internet generation. Yet many parents still feel that this is so. There are as yet no tried and tested models of "digital childhood". We are in uncharted territory, and are learning by trial and error, which is unsettling.

Of course, the sinister side of life didn't emerge with the internet: it simply amplified what was already inside us. Aspects of the web, such as anonymity, can make unpleasant behaviour easier. Hiding behind a screen enables people to tweet or email things that they would be unlikely to repeat face to face. But it is not the tool that creates the problems: it is simply age-old human behaviour finding a new outlet.

Gadgets often take the blame for ruining family communication, as parents and children sit at a dinner table, all staring at their mobile devices rather than engaging with each other. This doesn't have to be the case. If digital technology is a meaningful part of young people's lives, then engage with them about their social networking, or have them invite a friend who lives miles away to dinner via Skype. Gaming can be a family activity, screens bringing together the generations just as powerfully as they can separate them.

WE protect those we love - it's a gut instinct. But over-protection can leave children lacking healthy online skills. Supervised use, with inclusive family conversation, a decent computer filter, and established boundaries can make it all pretty safe. By the time our children are raising their own kids, no doubt there will be fresh technological innovations that will make today's fade into the background. We will then look back, as we do now on the early days of radio or TV, with much less panic and suspicion. Let's raise a generation who learn to use these tools healthily, confidently, and for great good.

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, a writer and a broadcaster, who is researching the ethics of technology.

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