Listening to the Today programme yesterday morning I heard the author Suki Kim describe her six months teaching at a boys’ school in North Korea – which she has written about in her latest book, Without You There Is No Us. It was striking – even by the standards of the most secretive nation in the world – to hear her say that her pupils did not even know the internet existed.
These boys, the sons of North Korea’s elite, are deprived of much more – freedom from being spied on 24-hours a day, for example. Yet banning children from being aware of the internet is not only cruel but shows how Pyongyang wants to keep even the elite members of its society in the dark ages. As someone who is old enough to have got through school without knowing what a website was, I can remember a time before the internet. It is easy to be nostalgic for an era when knowledge came only through teachers and textbooks, and entertainment only through TV, games and toys.
I wouldn’t want to return to that. But, as a parent, I am fearful of the internet free-for-all that my daughter could be exposed to as she grows up. An investigation by The Independent this week revealed that YouTube is showing adverts for junk food before the extraordinarily popular vlogs by Zoella and others – although the vloggers themselves may have no knowledge of the type of ad shown. These 30-second ads for things like Haribo and Coca-Cola would be banned from appearing alongside terrestrial children’s television programmes under Advertising Standards Authority Code, but the rules on scheduling apply to broadcast, not online ads.
You don’t have to be an educational psychologist to know the power these associations will have on under-16s. Jason Halford, a health behaviour expert at the University of Liverpool, says: “Advertising does affect children in terms of what they purchase and reinforcing the brand. But even beyond brand, our research has found it makes them grab the nearest sugary thing around, irrespective of their appetite.”
We as a society are addicted to sugar, and food companies know it. With my own four-year-old daughter, I have already weakened in the face of pressure from her for chocolate – she eats more Chocolate Mini Rolls than I would like her to. This Easter weekend I will indulge her with chocolate eggs. I know this is my responsibility, my fault. Yet the internet is under our skin and so too is our addiction to high-reward junk food.
I let my daughter watch YouTube – under my guidance, of course – for things like dinosaur songs and episodes of her favourite programmes, without even thinking about the adverts that are shown. As a parent, it is easy to sleepwalk into habits like letting children have a treat here and there, so do we even notice when they are watching adverts for Haribo?
It is not all that surprising that a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the UCL Institute of Child Health found that nearly a third of parents underestimate the weight of their child, with only a tiny fraction acknowledging it when they are obese. It takes a shock – like seeing them next to slimmer children – to be brought up short and be aware of an issue. The problem is, increasing numbers of children are overweight, so this body shape is becoming “normal”. More and more of us are sleepwalking into this problem: more than a third of children are classed as either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.
As this becomes the norm, is the stigma associated with being overweight becoming less pronounced? Being overweight is no longer just associated with negative characteristics like laziness; there is now a heroic and competitive element to over-eating. Just look at the popularity among teens of the US competitive eating series Man v Food – not only a hit on TV but also on YouTube. It is a good thing, of course, if this means fewer children are bullied for being fat, but over-eating should hardly be seen as heroic or ideed acceptable.
Parents must take responsibility for their children’s health and wellbeing. It is up to us to restrict their consumption of cakes and chocolate bars, just as we can restrict how much time our children spend on the internet. It is parents who are responsible, collectively, for the decline of formal meal times, when all TV, tablets and phones should be switched off. Instead these devices become everyday guests at the dinner table. I know I am guilty on this. On weekday mornings, in the rush to do the school run and get ready for work, breakfast is a quickly eaten bowl of cereal while CBeebies, the Today programme and my phone all compete for attention. It feels like we have no time to eat and talk together, but surely we do.
Parents just need a little help – and that means the food and drinks companies not being complicit in selling sugar to our kids when we least expect it, and taking more responsibility themselves. Children are more likely to watch programmes, clips and films on the internet than on TV. For today’s youngsters, the internet is as authoritative as their parents, teachers and peers. The ASA code applies to online ads, so shouldn’t the rules on restricting advertising to the young be updated to take account of this dramatic shift in viewing habits?
I cannot now imagine a life without the internet. For the boys at Suki Kim’s school in North Korea, it is a tragedy that they have neither the freedom nor the education-without-boundaries that the digital age has given the rest of the world. But the internet needs to give our children a rich diet of knowledge, not sugar.