Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood

At the moment there doesn’t seem to be a day that passes without some story about “harm” to young people as a result of online technologies (in the past week I have seen articles in the mainstream press about Facebook, Snapchat and gaming). And always coupled with these articles are calls for the providers of technology to “do more” to ensure children can go online in a safe manner.

As I write this there are two significant developments coming for policy makers too. Firstly, the part of the Serious Crime Bill related to making sexual communication with a child is finally being enacted into law. Secondly, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications has published a report calling for digital literacy to be the “fourth pillar” of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics. More specifically they state that “no child should leave school without a well-rounded understanding of the digital world”.

I have worked in this area for the best part of 15 years, holding many classes, workshops, assemblies and conversations with children and young people in the South West about their use of digital technology and how it affects them emotionally. In this time I have seen plenty of calls from politicians similar to those from the House of Lords Communications Committee and I have seen, and been asked to comment upon countless press articles about how we keep children and young people “safe” online and who is responsible for doing so.

Yet very little, at the grass roots level, seems to change. While the platforms they use differ now (back then Bebo, MySpace, and MSN and now Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook) the behaviours do not. While legislation continues to struggle to respond to the ever-changing challenge of emerging technologies, schools are told to “do more” in terms of education with a lack of resource, training or space in a timetable where senior leaders are judged more on academic performance than the social education of their pupils.

Many politicians call for technologies providers to “do more”, as if the providers are the only people that can prevent harm from occurring. However, technology providers can do little aside from provide technical “solutions”. In our rush to keep children safe online we are failing them in their rights – while filters may prevent access to inappropriate content, they will also block access to sites related to sex education, gender issues and sexual health. Monitoring internet access might provide us with a breakdown of what our children are looking at online, but at what cost to their privacy? And are we really reassured that the only ways our children are accessing online content are via systems we can monitor? As I have learned on many occasions from my conversations with young people, they know about these tools, and they know how to get around them! Perhaps not because they wish to get up to no good, but because they don’t want everyone knowing their business. And is that so unacceptable?.

In more recent times I have seen a trend with children and young people being tracked by parents and other carers. Many mobile devices now provide the means for them to be tracked, so one can view its location on another device, and as a result I have seen an increase in the use of such technology. Generally children who are being tracked accept it as something that is done to reassure parents or carers, or because they are concerned. However, other children believe, quite rightly in my view, that such approaches have a negative impact upon their own rights. A child who finds it acceptable to be tracked the whole time may grow up to be an adult who feels similar, and the more insidious use of such technology by, for example, an abusive partner, may result. Moreover, do these technologies really provide reassurance? I have been told by young people who wish to bypass such tracking they will leave their phone at a friend’s house, or switch it off. And how reassuring will it be to see the marker on the map disappear as the device is powered down?

In this rush for everyone to “do more”, we are failing to understand that these behaviours are no different to those that have existed for young people for a time long, way before digital technologies were in their pockets. While cyberbullying, sexting and cyber stalking are all delivered by digital technologies, at their root is the need to be popular, to have lots of friends and, yes, to engage in sometimes risky and irresponsible behaviour. It has been the same for generations, and is certainly similar to my friends and myself when we were teenagers. The only difference being that our daft escapades were far less public than those carried out by young people today.

We need to appreciate that we cannot make young people “safe” online – as a 10 year old boy at a school in Wadebridge asked me a while ago “What do you mean by safe anyway”? Safety arises from knowledge of risk, and resilience in dealing with such. If we are going to develop young people who are “digitally resilient”, we need to move away from “solutions” that focus on prohibition and an erosion of children’s rights. We must provide them with the knowledge they need to understand the risks with which they are engaging, and that things like having 500 friends, a 60 day streak, or 1000 followers are not actually measures of popularity. This requires an approach that moves away from technology and allows young people to explore esteem, respect, boundaries and empathy, regardless of the platforms and technologies they are using.

And who is responsible for ensuring this? We all are. While we might not be able to keep up with the specific technologies they are using, we can understand their need to be popular, or to feel wanted, or to understand how their words affect others. It should be an expectation of a society to provide this for our young people, rather than looking for someone, anyone, else to “do more”.