Safe…. or Savvy?

What kind of an internet do we want for our kids? And, perhaps more importantly, what kind of kids do we want to bring up?

These questions have been coming up a lot for me over the last week or so. The primary trigger has been the reemergence of the idea, seemingly backed by David Cameron (perhaps to distract us from the local elections!), of comprehensive, ‘opt-out’ porn blocking. The idea, apparently, is that ISPs would block porn by default, and that adults would have to ‘opt-out’ of the porn blocking in order to access pornographic websites. I’ve blogged on the subject before – there are lost of issues connected with it, from slippery slopes of censorship to the creation of databases of those who ‘opt-out’, akin to ‘potential sex-offender’ databases. That, though is not the subject of this blog – what I’m interested in is the whole philosophy behind it, a philosophy that I believe is fundamentally flawed.

That philosophy, it seems to me, is based on two fallacies:

  1. That it’s possible to make a place – even virtual ‘places’ like areas of the internet – ‘safe’; and
  2. That the best way to help kids is to ‘protect’ them

For me, neither of these are true – ultimately, both are actually harmful. The first idea promotes complacency – because if you believe an environment is ‘safe’, you don’t have to take care, you don’t have to equip kids with the tools that they need, you can just leave them to it and forget about it. The second idea magnifies this problem, by encouraging a form of dependency – kids will ‘expect’ everything to be safe for them, and they won’t be as creative, as critical, as analytical as they should be, first of all because their sanitised and controlled environment won’t allow it, and secondly because they’ll just get used to being wrapped in cotton wool.

Related to this is the idea, which I’ve seen discussed a number of times recently, of electronic IDs for kids, to ‘prove’ that they’re young enough to enter into these ‘safe’ areas where the kids are ‘protected’ – another laudable idea, but one fraught with problems. There’s already anecdotal evidence of the sale of ‘youth IDs’ on the black market in Belgium, to allow paedophiles access to children’s areas on the net – a kind of reverse of the more familiar sale of ‘adult’ IDs to kids wanting to buy alcohol or visit nightclubs. With the growth of databases in schools (about which I’ve also blogged) the idea that a kids electronic ID would actually guarantee that a ‘kid’ is a kid is deeply flawed. ‘Safe’ areas may easily become stalking grounds…

There’s also the question of who would run these ‘safe’ areas, and for what purpose? A lovely Disney-run ‘safe’ area that is designed to get children to buy into the idea of Disney’s movies – and to buy (or persuade their parents to buy) Disney products? Politically or religiously run ‘safe’ areas which promote, directly or indirectly, particular political or ethical standpoints? Who decides what constitutes ‘unacceptable’ material for kids?

So what do we need to do?

First of all, to disabuse ourselves of these illusions. The internet isn’t ‘safe’ – any more than anywhere in the real world is ‘safe’. Kids can have accidents, meet ‘bad’ people and so on – just as they do in the real world. Remember, too, that the whole idea of ‘stranger danger’ is fundamentally misleading – most abuse that kids receive comes from people they know, people in their family or closely connected to it.

That doesn’t mean that kids should be kept away from the internet – the opposite. The internet offers massive opportunities to kids – and they should be encouraged to use it from a young age, but to use it with intelligence, with a critical and analytical outlook. Kids are far better at this than most people seem to give them credit for – they’re much more ‘savvy’ instinctively than we often think. That ‘savvy’ approach should be encouraged and supported.

What’s more, we have to understand our roles as parents, as teachers, as adults in relation to kids – we’re there to help, and to support, and to encourage. My daughter’s just coming up to six years old, and when she wants to know things, I tell her. If she’s doing something I think is too dangerous, I tell her – and sometimes I stop her. BUT, much of the time – most of the time – I know I need to help her rather than tell her what to do. She learns things best in her own way, in her own time, through her own experience. I watch her and help her – but not all the time. I encourage her to be independent, not to take what people say as guaranteed to be true, but to criticise and judge it for herself.

I don’t always get it right – indeed, I very often get it wrong – but I do at least know that this is how it is, and I try to learn. I know she’s learning – and I know she’ll make mistakes too. She’ll also encounter some bad stuff when she starts exploring the internet for real – I don’t want to stop her encountering it – I want to equip her with the skills she needs to deal with it, and to help her through problems that arise as a result.

I want a savvy kid – not the illusion of a safe internet. Isn’t that a better way?

10 thoughts on “Safe…. or Savvy?

  1. My boys are now 16 and 14, and they don’t stop getting compliments from everyone about how mature they are, how clever, how easy to talk to, and so on. They are both amazing students, extra cool kids, caring about others and an example on how you can be fun AND good at stuff at the same time. What most people forget or don’t know is that as they grew up many were disapproving of how “unprotected” they were (especially by Italian standards). They had a chance to develop their own ideas about life, the world, and everything, and that is priceless.

  2. That’s the way I see it – if you wrap children in cotton wool and protect them from everything, you’re doing them a massive disservice. They need to learn!

  3. Better to let kids learn from their own mistakes and experiences than to keep them so safe, they never learn anything.

  4. The main problem with the idea of “opting in” to porn is that it fundamentally mistakes how the technology works. At its most basic, an Internet connection simply consists of a wire (or piece of fibre optic) with a computer at one end (the consumer or end user) and another computer at the other, with, in turn lots more connections to other computers which link to other computers and… so on. By default, all of these computers can talk to each other without interference. That’s not just how the Internet works, it’s pretty much the definition of what the Internet is.

    Blocking porn (or anything else), therefore, requires something more added on top of that connection. It requires filtering software, lists of porn sites, firewalls, proxies, deep packet inspection, main-in-the-middle SSL decrypters, lots of money and magic. Well, not really magic, but that’s the only way to make it reliable.

    I don’t have a problem with ISPs offering that as a service to their subscribers if they want it. But it is not, and cannot be, the default position. Choosing filtering is opting in. Choosing not to be filtered is not opting in to porn, it’s simply not opting in to filtering. And there are very many reasons which have nothing at all to do with porn why people might prefer an unfiltered Internet connection. Like, for example, the fact that it will be cheaper, faster, more reliable and won’t break more esoteric uses of the Internet such as online gaming and connecting to an office intranet.

    I have, and always will have, an unfiltered Internet connection. Anyone who thinks that that’s because I want to get loads of porn, and don’t care if my children see porn, really doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And it is not a good idea to let people who don’t know what they’re talking about be responsible for government policy.

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