We are beginning to lose our way in terms of how we bring up our children,” says Sandra Leaton Gray, a former teacher and author of a controversial report which suggests that the pendulum may be swinging towards too much regulation and intervention in young people’s online activity.
Leaton Gray co-wrote Invisibly Blighted: The Digital Erosion of Childhood – a polemical study which argues that “there is a serious risk that the next generation of our society develops in a way that makes them think they have no right to privacy”.
Last week it made headlines for the suggestion that children were successfully developing their own moral codes to keep the practice of sexting within limits. Not a view that is likely to find much traction with worried parents wondering what their children are seeing and sending on their phones. But her point is that children’s online interaction is not rule-free.
“It’s coming in,” she tells the Observer, “It’s not great and it won’t solve the problem but what we found really interesting is that as a generation they are inching towards quite an interesting moral code. It’s the idea that something is not so much a problem if it is shared privately, one to one – a little bit like us having a conversation with each other. What is considered to have caused the big offence and the big anxiety is if you share further than that and do so without permission.”
Her report was the product of focus groups, workshops and discussions in which young people talked about their digital lives. Leaton Gray, a lecturer at UCL’s Institute of Education, and her co-author Andy Phippen, professor of children and technology at Plymouth University’s business school, emerged with some bleak conclusions. Among the young people interviewed, she reports a “sense of collective outrage” about intrusion by figures of authority.
“It’s towards people demanding to look through their phones; over the fact that teachers have greater rights than the police to search pupils’ phones, to pry and dig into their lives,” she says. “It’s quite oppressive and the students we spoke to are very vocal about this and about the need for more respect really.”
Things appear to be going in the opposite direction – towards greater blocking, monitoring and tracking in the name of child protection. While content filtering technology is well established in schools, its use in homes is also expanding. In 2012 a parliamentary inquiry was launched into online child protection, chaired by Tory MP Claire Perry. And a private member’s bill was put forward last year by the crossbench peer Baroness Howe of Idlicote which advocated banning access to online pornography except for adults who had opted to receive it. In 2013 David Cameron, then the prime minister, outlined a similar idea in a speech billed by Downing Street as “making the internet safer for children”.
All such campaigns assume that tools can be put in place to ensure that harmful content cannot be delivered into the home and viewed by children. But Leaton Gray takes issue with this. She suggests that a lack of effective sex and relationship education in schools means that the internet is the only place where some teenagers can find useful information about sexuality, sexual health, gender identity and similar issues. She also believes filtering will fail to stop those teenagers determined to access content deemed inappropriate.
She admits her position on internet use is “fairly libertarian” but does believe in introducing systems and controls that act as barriers to sharing information that shouldn’t really be shared. “We seem to have social media platforms being puritanical about innocent breastfeeding shots shared for information among new mothers, yet allowing something of a privacy free-for-all with pupils posting any pictures they like of their friends or teachers, with no online privacy inquiry challenging this as they try to upload.”
At the most basic level, how early should children be entrusted with their own phone? Secondary school is as good a threshold as any, she says, given that many will have started to travel to school independently. More important is the capability of the phone, what it is used for and, she emphasises, the bond of trust between child and parents.
She cites her own family’s use of GPS trackers, a technology whose use has been spreading among parents.
“Occasionally my kids will use them, but it’s a deal that we have so, for example, if they don’t come home you can get a head start on finding out if someone has a problem. There has got to be a degree of trust there. I am not going to be spying on them and checking them out every 10 minutes.”
In contrast, Perry, who was appointed as the last government’s adviser on the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood, told the BBC in 2013 that parents should challenge the idea that children have the right to keep online chats, text messages, tweets and Facebook conversations private.
Blighted Lives ends with a manifesto, saying the argument that children’s rights must eroded to keep them safe when using technology “are more 19th century than modern day”. The authors are now in talks about producing what Leaton Gray says will be a more “popular” version of their book, designed to act as a practical guide on how to parent in the digital age.
It will also challenge conventional views of digital risk. “I think the most dangerous thing you can do for your child in terms of a day-to-day problem is put a trampoline in your garden ... If you read the data it really is a dangerous thing to do. And they worry teenagers might be sharing a couple of pictures.”