The horse has already bolted. Ever since the worldwide web was launched, all manner of possibilities have been explored through it. We humans have ventured to every part of our planet, but the limits to which the internet can stretch are continually probed in order to create new technological vistas. It has changed the way many people live their lives. Its impact is indubitable.
Excitement about things we have never before made, however, inevitably blinds us to any concerns. ‘Why curb what is an unstoppable rollercoaster with naysaying amendments?’ ‘Why be the awkward squad by requesting what is unwanted?’ Answer? Because it’s become the most unsafe playground for our children.
We live in a free society. But freedom comes with structures that provide frames of reference. Take the British Board of Film Classification. Whether or not you think it’s woolly or off-piste with its recommendations on what films are appropriate for particular age groups, it is still an intentional structure that frames what films are suitable in content.
Negatively, we can say that as a society we deem some film material to be off limits for our children and gradated depending on age profile. A further example might be found with gaming. Scotland has a huge stake in this with Dundee being a world centre for the creation of online and console gaming. Video game ratings are also mandatory under UK law. The Games Rating Authority (GRA) – which is part of the Video Standards Council – rates games using the PEGI system. Games which carry a PEGI 12, 16 or 18 rating cannot be sold or hired to persons below those ages. As a society we have put these measures in place because we believe some material is inappropriate for our children until they have come of certain ages.
But with the internet in general, the same assumptions do not apply. So we protect children offline, but fail to apply the same rigour to keeping them safe online.
The internet is nothing short of the most dangerous playground for children in our society today. More parents than ever think nothing of driving their kids directly to the school gate to keep them safe, but, with a smart phone in hand, the same kids have been put in an equally vulnerable position.
With troubling regularity we’re seeing reported young teenagers who have ended their lives, citing their decision was motivated by social media interactions. Less extreme is the huge spike in mental ill-health due to social media and gaming usage. Only last year mental health experts were warning that digital addiction can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
In 2017, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences researched 87 people aged between 18 and 26. Researchers took their phones from them and put them in a cupboard under lock and key. The response was alarming. The results showed heart rhythms very similar to that of someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. We need everything in moderation as human beings.
Easily accessed pornography has made the internet a modern day Wild West for sexual ethics. Porn poisons young hearts and minds during their formative years as a dangerously fake world is introduced to them. This world then imposes itself on real relationships, distorting the lines between real and unreal.
Without the same thorough dynamic assessments of new smart phone technologies and subsequent online material from the film and gaming industries, we expose children to material that in other areas of society we deem harmful. We are so far behind in this that the dyke not only has several holes to plug, it’s in danger of coming down altogether.
On 21 January in the House of Lords, Baroness Howe’s Digital Economy Act 2017 (Commencement of Part 3) Bill received its first reading. It needs the Government to set an implementation date for Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act (DEA), which means age checks on online porn being introduced. Part 3 of the DEA includes provisions for age verification and was approved by MPs and peers. That legislation is still on the statute books. Age verification is desperately needed when children access porn accidentally online because there is a lack of proper protection.
The horse has bolted but we should lead it back to the starting gate because the internet must be safe for Scotland’s children.
Stuart Weir, national director of CARE for Scotland.