Kids’ healthy curiosity more powerful than censorship
My nine-year-old has been waging a campaign to see the South Park movie for six months now. I’ve said ‘No’. It’s a funny movie but there’s a scene in it, featured below, where Saddam Hussein has sex with Satan. I figure you have to be at least ten years old to process that joke.
Naturally, my son did what all well-raised and obedient children do when their parents ban something. He waited until I was cooking dinner and he YouTubed it. It was a smart move – he got to watch all the rude bits without any of the annoying political satire.
As I write this column, I’m in London attending a conference on children and cybersafety. I have no doubt that my son is reveling in my absence. My exhausted partner will surely fall asleep early at some point and my son will sneak upstairs to type naughty words into Google.
If you listen to most of what is said in the media, you’d get the impression that it’s the internet and mobile phones that are making children curious about the adult world. But anyone who remembers anything about being a child will recall rifling through their parents’ stuff trying to find things – anything – they weren’t supposed to find.
Children are curious. They push boundaries and they push our buttons when they do it. As media goes online and mobile, parents have less and less control over what media content children find and where they find it. As adults it’s our job to be gatekeepers. But we also need to keep a clear eye on the boundaries between rational protection and irrational fantasies of control.
The question of how we strike the right balance is a major public policy issue and it’s one that European countries are way ahead of Australia in addressing. The EU Kids Online research network has produced the most comprehensive work to date on the risks and the opportunities for children in the digital era.
Over three years, key researchers across the European Union compared studies, laws and policy. They argue that we need to move beyond popular panics about technology and onto comprehensive education and workable regulation. We need to be teaching children about the online world and we need citizens and governments to work together to make using the internet less risky for kids.
In Australia, we’re still stalled at a point when many people expect our federal government to fix it all. It’s an impossible task for the politicians held responsible. Why do we expect the Minister for Communications to make 8 billion websites safe for 8 year olds?
There’s been a lot of antagonism directed at Minister Conroy over his trials of ISP level filtering. Industry insiders and some academic experts have argued it’s unworkable. I think we ought to wait and see. Politicians have to balance a myriad of interest groups and responsibilities and it’s naïve to think there’s only one way they can skin the internet protection cat.
In the meantime, the best evidence suggests it’s time for the rest of us to take more responsibility in our parenting and in what we expect our schools to be teaching. The European research shows that most parents are much more concerned about their children playing outside with no adult supervision than they are about them playing online. It’s a perverse risk equation.
I’m 48. I started walking to school when I was 6. At 7, I was catching the bus into town. At 8, I spent the school holidays riding to see friends who lived miles away. How many parents would let their kid do that today? Yet lots of them think their children are safe as long as they’re under the same roof.
There are real risks that kids will find extremely disturbing material on the net. But we need to put those risks into proportion. How a child reacts after coming across porn or violent material has a lot to do with how the parents react. We need to have conversations with our kids about cybersafety, about the existence of sexual and violent material, about cyberbullying, and about the dangers of giving out information to strangers online.
Oh - and a note to my 9 year old: I’ll be checking the entire Google history when I get home. You might want to let your Dad in on that secret too.
- Professor Catharine Lumby is the Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at UNSW. Her recent book, The Porn Report, looked at the production and consumption of pornography in Australia including how we can protect children from online pornography.
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