Can we protect children from the darker aspects of the internet? That was the question put to the panel last night, when the Spectator hosted a feisty discussion about the effects of technology on childhood. Child abuse, pornography and online dating were discussed, as was the idea that children have become self-centered and socially inept.
Andrew Neil chaired the event, and was joined by culture minister Ed Vaizey, psychologist Oliver James, The Spectator’s Rory Sutherland and Microsoft’s Jacqueline Beauchere. Each panelist presented a different angle on the subject of The ‘Always On’ Generation, but all agreed that technology had created new opportunities and challenges.
Ed Vaizey took the stage first, and explained how the government is attempting to protect children from the three main abuses of the internet: pornography, child abuse and adult content. He discussed how close work with internet service providers has enabled them to begin to curb these issues. Vaizey also revealed that an ‘Internet Matters’ campaign will launch soon, and will provide digital tools to help protect children.
Oliver James rejected the argument that the Always On generation is at any special risk. ‘Cyber-bulling only happens to people that are vulnerable to it,’ he said. ‘We do spend too much time on screens but there have also been positive developments in the romantic sphere.’ He then stressed the correlation between unstable upbringings and vulnerability in cyberspace.
Jacqueline Beauchere, Microsoft’s Chief Online Safety Officer, dissected how technology is changing childhood. ‘We see technology as redefining childhood, but for the digital natives, it’s just childhood,’ she said. Her solution to the problems created by the technological era was to ensure online etiquette was taught in classrooms. ‘It’s no longer sufficient to try to protect children from others online; we need to teach children to protect themselves online.’
The discussion was rounded off by Rory Sutherland, The Spectator’s technology correspondent. Sutherland predicted (with typical bombast) that the effects of technology on children will take time to reveal themselves, but that there will inevitably be unforeseen consequences.
The gravest threat, Rory said, was that children run the risk of forgetting how to entertain themselves. ‘Young children can’t walk around on their own or spend any time in solitude. Boredom is not necessarily bad for you,’ he said.
But as Rory pointed out, older generations should perhaps take note of the Always On generation’s intensely social use of technology. ‘I’m planning on launching Grindr for middle-aged married couples,’ he said. ‘It’s a very simple app that reminds you to have sex on Saturday because Sunday is Downton night.’
Questions from the audience rounded the discussion off. The overriding consensus seemed to be that yes – children did need to be protected from the perils of the internet. But in an age when the intricacies of the web are often better understood by the young than by the old, this could be easier said than done.
Listen to the debate in full: