Take care in cyberspace, children

Despite this week's debates about taste and decency, our power to protect childhood innocence is on the wane
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When a teenage magazine's agony aunt gave explicit advice about oral sex this week, there was an immediate outcry. Parents rebelled and retailers refused to stock the magazine. The BBC's new draft charter, also published this week, specified for the first time the corporation's obligation to broadcast programmes at "appropriate times", "to show concern for the young" and not to offend "against good taste and decency".

Both events yet again raise the difficult matter of how best to protect our children from exposure to "unsuitable" material. In the teen mag row, the prohibitionists lined up to call for a ban on the magazine in question, pinning their faith on the power of public opinion and the state to act as guardians of a shared morality. Their opponents immediately jumped to the defence of themagazine in question: teenagers who are given open and honest advice about sex are, they said, less likely to go on to be promiscuous than those denied that knowledge.

Neither position is very credible in the long term. The conservatives seem to want to protect children from their own sexuality, steadfastly ignoring the fact that children are becoming aware of their sexuality younger than in the past and physically maturing earlier.The libertarians, for their part, too often fall into the trap of treating children as mini adults, implying that no boundaries are needed on the free flow of information. One side has a halcyon vision of childhood innocence, the other fails to recognise that in this brave new world children might be vulnerable.

The idea of protecting a space for childhood innocence has its origins in the Victorian era. Victorians extolled the virtues of childhood and built a cocooned, pure world where children could grow up in a constant state of protection. This was partly a response to the fact that children had previously been treated like adults, sent to work down mines or in sweatshops, their shoulders from a tender age weighed down with the responsibilities of the adult world.

Now we seem to be returning full circle, with an ever-proliferating media and its barrage of messages being one of the main drivers of change, eroding and undermining childhood innocence. Hence the renewed attempts to regulate and control.

From this week's skirmishes it seems as if the forces of control are triumphing, but I wonder whether the regulators have won only the battle and not the war. The stark fact is that it is becoming increasingly hard to protect anything like an innocent, unsullied space for children to grow up in. Magazines may be relatively easy to control, but the very diversity of our media and the proliferation of new technologies means that every wall will be breached.

You don't need to spend very long surfing the Internet to get a feel for the problem: even minimal keyboard skills can get you into domains of the sexually bizarre that you would find in only the most adult bookshops. Earlier this week I visited an impressive IBM exhibition in London, showcasing new technology and its social uses. I looked in on a stand designed to show the benefits of the Internet to schools. Yet within five minutes, instead of finding out about the capital of Outer Mongolia, I had accidentally surfed across some fairly hardcore pornography and Web sites for every imaginable minority sexual taste. My computer skills aren't better than the average eight-year-old's.

I would guess that the numbers of children coming into contact with this kind of stuff are still fairly small - only 2,000 schools are using the Internet - but it is easy to see why parents are getting paranoid. Children can usually use new technologies better than their parents. They have learnt to work the video timer, the remote and Sega and Nintendo games, while their parents gaze on bemused at such technological sophistication.

We are all having to face up to the fact that our children's familiarity with technology is bringing a new set of risks, especially if we want them to take full advantage of computers as tools of empowerment and education.

Techno-liberationists like to present all this technological progress as a new-found freedom, and see any attempt to control the flow of images and messages as futile. But many of us know it's not quite as simple as that, especially where children are concerned: parents are fighting back in a desperate effort to keep childhood "pure". In America, the techniques of prohibition are taking on a new form, as more and more parents turn to technology itself to help them police access to information.

US manufacturers have developed a computer chip, the V-chip, which Congress has stipulated must be placed in all new television sets so that parents can block out channels and programmes deemed unacceptable for their children. At its launch BSB promised a different technology here, but with the same goal, a kind of push-button curfew to protect children from adult programmes. With the advent of multi-media and proliferating television channels such screening devices are likely to become increasingly popular.

But while it may be relatively easy to control mass audience television channels, the prospect of policing cyberspace looks extremely remote, despite the efforts of the Singapore government and several US states to ban some services from the Internet. The dilemma governments face is that while they can make it harder to access a service directly, you can easily gain access to the Internet from another provider in another country, bypassing territorial control without having to move away from your computer screen.

Ultimately, the walls governments build are bound to be leaky. In an information age the myth of childhood innocence is being bust apart whether we like it or not by forces far beyond our control. Many parents feel a sense of loss - and threat - because of this. A loss, because parents can no longer rely on regulators and authorities to protect their children's innocence, and threat because, V chip or no V chip, they are increasingly powerless to control the medium, let alone the message.

So from now on we will have to come to terms with the fact that there will never again be a safe domain of childhood innocence (and perhaps there never was). Instead, parents will have to recognise that, just as they have to make their children streetwise to be safe in public places, so in cyberspace, if they want their children to be protected they will have to teach them from a much earlier age to make their own judgements about what is good and bad.