The only way to protect children online is parental responsibility

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Last week I took part in the programme Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to it here, following this link. (There is a bit of kerfuffle with having to register, if you have not done so already.) The programme was a discussion of that perennial topic: children and the internet. The discussion struck me as somewhat too wide-ranging, but a few points it raised are of interest.

First of all, something that I had not realised until now, internet games are developed in such a way as to be addictive. The more addictive a game is, the more people will want to play it, after all. In other words, the addictive quality of the internet is not accidental: it is something that is deliberately built into its structure. This is an important point. It means that many of our internet choice are driven by our addiction, not our rationality. Given that we are homo sapiens, rational creatures, the internet, by sapping our reason, is also sapping our humanity.

The second thing that strikes me is the way that few of our contemporaries wish to make moral judgments. When asked whether spending 4 hours in outdoor activity was better for a child than 4 hours at a computer, one witness was unwilling to give a clear answer, it seemed to me. The answer is obvious, and it is so because we have a definite view (or should have) of what constitutes human flourishing, and what does not. So one can make moral judgments, and one must, because there is such a thing as right and wrong, and good and evil. Certain choices are to be condemned, or at least viewed as sub-optimal. But in our own time, many are loath to admit this. Choice is all. But choice is only of value if it is choice to do the right thing.

One panel member made the, to me, absurd suggestion that teenagers who “sext” each other are doing something essentially harmless. I beg to differ. To entrust another person with such pictures of oneself is very unwise. Sexting can have tragic results. Moreover, as with other forms of indecent exposure, it is illegal. The point so often missed is that sexting is in fact indecent exposure, as the internet is a public forum.

What though is the solution? One panel member seemed to think I was in favour of filters for children, or censorship, or even, absurdly, stopping women driving in Saudi Arabia. Filters, though laudable in intent, do not work. The solution is in fact non-technical. Parents need to talk to children about their internet use, and they need to talk to each other about their internet use. That is the only way forward. And for everyone, these is this question: Would I be happy for my browsing history to be made public, and the content of my text messages? Because you know what, they already, in a sense, are.

The internet gives us an illusion of privacy, and an illusion of anonymity, and it cuts us off from others. It makes trolling and abuse possible by removing from exchanges human sympathy and the face to face aspect of communication. The trolling of people like Caroline Criado-Perez and other women is simply disgraceful, and would not have been possible before the internet revolution. We need to take responsibility for our online choices, and the internet platforms need to take responsibility as well. But none of that is going to happen, unless we acknowledge that the choice we make have a moral dimension to them.

One final point. The American bishops have produced a very good document on the problem of internet porn. It can be found here. The statement represents a response to the challenge that cannot be dismissed as moral panic. The American bishops understand there is a problem and indeed a solution. Many of the rest of us seem mired in confusion. All revolutions have their defenders, of course, but decades after the Sexual Revolution, isn’t it time to re-evaluate the way liberation has turned into license?