In the two years I've been working on internet safety, scarcely a week has passed without a press scare story about what can happen to children when they are let loose on the internet: bullying, sexting, screen addiction, grooming, you name it.
The response has been numerous interventions – often technical, but also social – designed to keep children safe. The upshot is that British children are the most monitored and restricted online of any in Europe, according to the EU Kids Online research led by Sonia Livingstone at the LSE: more subject to parental filters and restrictions, for example on the time they are allowed to spend online. Paradoxically, they are also less safe [PDF].
The British enthusiasm for focusing on the risks and harms of the internet (which, in practice, mainly means the former because they're so much easier to measure) turns out to be in many ways counter-productive. When children are monitored too rigorously and restricted too tightly, they are prevented from encountering the risks that would help them learn to be resilient [PDF].
Meanwhile, an emphasis on controlling internet use stops us from addressing something that may turn out to be more important. In framing the internet as something 'out there' that can only be dealt with by setting time limits or imposing controls – in effect, by switching off – we are suggesting to young people that they can't expect to have any agency in their relationship with digital technologies. By responding with surveillance and control, we effectively tell them that the solution to social problems is surveillance and control.
This amounts to a failure to equip children for their relationship to the world around them, including the ability to resist the commercialisation of daily life. Often, all we seem able to offer in response to online unease is the idealisation of a pre-digital world – which, in reality, left a lot of children feeling bored and isolated.
By responding with surveillance and control, we effectively tell children that the solution to social problems is surveillance and control
Many of the values that are needed to thrive in the digital age are developed in families. They are the social and emotional qualities that make relationships possible: empathy, intuition, creativity, imagination, deftness in dealing with others, the ability to collaborate, critical thinking, discernment, judgement, and the capacity to question.
We need to start seeing the digital world as part of the fabric of our children's lives, over which they have entitlement – otherwise we will offer young people little hope of resisting its current tendency to turn them into datasets for the benefit of some corporate balance sheet.
In parenting terms, innovative thinking will require us to revisit some old ideas, reframing them for the online context:
- Setting high expectations
- Allowing children to take risks
- Supporting children unconditionally even while not necessarily endorsing everything they do
- Taking a genuine interest in their activities and point of view
- Developing trust
- Agreeing boundaries rather than imposing them
Digital safety advocates have lobbied successfully for social media platforms to impose age restrictions (which are, however, very widely flouted) but has failed to question the way those platforms actually work or whether they might serve young people better.
If children are to thrive in the digital age, we need to see young people – and help them to see themselves – as creative, collaborative, self-organising problem-solvers. For most people, the effects of the internet are noticeable in the changes – often quite small, but cumulative – that digital technologies bring about in our moods, manners, feelings and ways of going about our lives. Internet safety has a place, especially for younger children, but we cannot afford to imply to our children that the only response to technology's structural upheavals is to turn away and switch off.