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
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
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
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
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.