Jayne Dowle: Problems of moral panic in an online age

No sane parent will do anything but applaud this new plan to curb the access children have to internet porn. David Cameron himself, no less, has persuaded the four major internet service providers, BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, to force new customers to choose whether to receive it on their home computers. If they don’t admit they want it, they won’t get it.

You can see the logic. The last thing any responsible adult wants is their young son or daughter trying to do their homework and stumbling across ladies and gentlemen – or worse – in compromising positions. It is bad enough trying to teach children the facts of life, without them being alarmed by Busty Becky from Bridlington wiggling it around for all to see.

Apparently, according to Psychologies magazine, by the age of 10, one in three children has witnessed some kind of internet porn. With two extremely net-savvy kids aged nine and six, I am amazed that it has never happened to us. And I think I would know, seeing as the laptop my two fight over is on the kitchen table and I have ears like a bat and eyes like a magpie.

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I have to admit that I am slightly hazy on how it works. Not porn, of course. I’m not that dim. No, the process by which it is most likely to pop up unexpectedly half-way through an earnest juvenile search for the six wives of Henry VIII. If the computer has already accessed such sites, I presume there a higher probability of them appearing during an innocent activity. I know that Facebook can spookily track you, and send you ads that reflect your guilty surfing habits. But I’m so boring that the most damning evidence I get of my extra-curricular fantasy net activities are adverts for shoe-shops.

There’s a balance between parental responsibility and letting kids find out things naturally for themselves. And there is a big spectrum between bondage and a flash of bikini. This internet porn control comes as part of a general “crackdown” on sexually-aggressive imagery and advertising. Other moves include banning provocative underwear adverts, curbing the sale of push-up bras to tweenies and monitoring sex and violence on television before the 9pm watershed. The dance routines of Rihanna and Christina Aguilera on The X-Factor are cited in evidence. This is where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. I just wonder how much of it is over-protective moral panic, and how much of it can be really sustainable in a modern multi-media world.

Not for a moment do I want my six-year-old daughter to wear a bra. I’d like her to be a little girl for a little while longer, because I’ve seen what your average 12-year-old looks like these days, and once you start with the padding and the false eyelashes and the fake tan, there is no turning back.

But sexy dancing? On the telly? Just because The X-Factor won’t be able to show it doesn’t mean it won’t exist. Your kids only have to flick through the myriad music channels to check out strip-tease, rappers on yachts surrounded by harems of scantily-clad models and squirty musical ice-creams shaped, as my nine-year-old son puts it, “like boobies”.

And this is just on television. Have you ever seen a bunch of kids clustering round YouTube? This, in case you have been on Mars for the past few years, is the website which shows videos. I reckon that “going on YouTube” wins hands-down as the favourite online activity for under-12s. Forget Facebook – boys, especially, lose patience with the conversational aspect. YouTube brings the world to their fingertips, whether it’s animals doing daft tricks, American wrestlers, song lyrics or Wayne Rooney getting sent off. I wouldn’t want to take it away from my children. But I can see where this generally censorious mood is heading. Pretty soon the campaigners are going to realise they have missed a trick. YouTube itself will end up in the firing line.

Obviously, you don’t have to have been on Mars to realise that if kids can find Wayne Rooney getting sent off on YouTube, they can find pretty much anything else they want to getting off. But hold on a minute. Can we just get some perspective here? Can’t we parents actually sit down and talk about what is acceptable and what is dangerous with our kids any more? Do we really need a website to “report” dodgy goings-on, as this crackdown includes?

And think on. Over the past week, since the founder of Apple died, I’ve heard so many people say that what we need now are the Steve Jobs of the future. Especially in Britain, we should find the confidence to harness creativity with technology and come up with ideas that will revolutionise the world. Protect our children, by all means, but let’s just remind ourselves that we won’t encourage them to become the next Steve Jobs with one hand over their eyes and the other on the button marked “off”.