Obsessing over our children’s moral welfare won’t do them any good

Kids have always spent their time seeking out mischief, with or without the internet

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The Independent Online

Here in Mallorca where I am currently still on holiday (don’t worry, I’ll be on my way back to the rain-swept UK by the time you are reading this), there is a chain of supermarkets called Eroski. As we drove past one, I wondered aloud whether this was an eponymous reference to its vastly wealthy Russian owner, or whether it was called thus thanks to a Greek-Slavonic reference to the god of sexual desire. The kids looked at me blankly.

“There might be an over-18 version of Eroski in Mallorca you know,” I suggested. “Eroticski. With assistants handing out copies of Fifty Shades of Grey at the entrance. Leatherwear on special offer, tubs of chocolate-flavoured body cream optional.” My four children, aged between 9 and 17, were not amused. Erotic supermarkets are not something about which a parent ought to be joking. “You are disgusting,” said the 14-year-old. “What is Fifty Shades of Grey all about anyway?” said the 11-year-old. “It sounds very boring. A book about grey, in, like, 50 colours.”

The next day, we had cause to drive into Palma for something, and left the boys (14 and 9), behind for an hour or so. “I wonder if they are using the iPad,” I said to Mr Millard. “They are probably watching Emmanuelle Meets the Wifeswappers.” Cue more giggles from yours truly. “Mother!” said my elder daughter.

I started to feel rather like Edina from Ab Fab, whose racy nature horrified her child. “Oh come on,” I said. “I used to watch that sort of thing when I was young.” Indeed, I recall a very amusing afternoon going into gales of laughter with my best friend Melissa while watching titles such as Three on a Dentist’s Chair on a battered VHS. “You did what?” said my daughter, who is studious and mindful of her manners. “Well we watched a bit of porn,” I said, slightly uneasily by this stage. “Everyone did. Don’t you and your friends ever look at porn?” “Of course NOT,” she said, in the sort of way which I knew meant she was telling the truth.

This, of course, is the problem. We helicopter over our children so much (and I am as guilty about this as anyone else), that when we leave them alone and unattended by an adult for an hour or two, we imagine they are immediately rushing to their iPods and that their use of the internet will lead them straight into either grooming sessions with potential paedophiles, or hard core porn which will corrupt their natures and make them think sex is something which involves brutality.

Of course, some of these horrors are out there. Some children will find them, and watch them. Recent figures from the Institute of Public Policy Research suggested that seeing porn online and sending sexual photos or videos was part of “everyday life” for our young people. But maybe their awareness of pornography, at 18, is not far removed from when we were teenagers, where the ‘top shelf’ was legendary and porn regularly passed around at school, even at polite schools for young ladies such as mine.

Perhaps the IPPR and Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Mother’s Union, might take a rain check at what many children are actually doing online. Bailey told yesterday’s Independent that our children spend too much time on their screens, and that is, per se, a bad thing.

Certainly our children do spend a lot of time on their screens, and I am as impatient with the dread habit of texting at the dinner table as the next parent. But when they are sitting down with their devices, what are they actually doing? Chatting to their friends it seems, via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the rest. Or sending silly videos of people having gallons of ice being poured all over them. Or sharing cat pictures, and more cat pictures. Or pug pictures. Or finding out why Häagen Dazs is so called. Or learning how to make smiley bananas out of loom bands. And so on. There is a lot of crafting out there. And socialising. Because their terrified parents won’t let them go out and socialise in real time, face to face with their friends in parks.

Indeed, in the golden summer holidays of my youth, I remember enduring a lot of very boring moments. How to fill them? You discover Valley of the Dolls, and read it. You wander off the campsite with your brother and buy No 6 cigarettes, or drink lots of cider, and so on. Getting up to no good was the general idea. The fear of the internet as an “online jungle” is understandable, but is it realistic to suggest hindering our teenagers – who rely on it as a social lifeline – from its dark places, when the dark places have always been there for young people to negotiate?