Virtual nightmares about social networking

‘Children at risk online!’ declare two new British reports. Yet they seem to be based more on unfounded fears about web weirdos and ignorant parents than on hard facts.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech

In light of two reports published in the past week, it’s official: the internet is a very scary place. For children, technology-savvy but socially callow, it is doubly so. In fact, just about the only thing that is deemed more frightening than the risks to which children are exposed is their parents’ ignorance.

Luckily, for fans of fear-mongering, the publication of TV psychologist Dr Tanya Byron’s government-sanctioned report, Safer Children in a Digital World, and the Office of Communication (Ofcom) report, Social Networking: A Quantitative and Qualitative Research Report Into Attitudes, Behaviours and Use, mean such ignorant bliss is unlikely to last long.

Alongside violent video games and pornography, social networking sites, such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace, are both the principal focus and main source of official anxiety. While noting their immense popularity amongst young people, with 54 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds possessing networking profiles, it’s the presence of 8- to 17-year-olds that has caused most concern: 49 per cent of them have a networking presence. Moreover, despite the age restrictions on these sites often being set at 13 (or 14 for Myspace), Ofcom revealed that 27 per cent of 8- to 11-year-olds already claim to have profiles (1).

The ostensible fear is that these whippersnappers aren’t mature enough to know how to behave or cope in the online public sphere. As a result, they put themselves at risk of ‘stranger danger, cyber bullying and access to inappropriate content from sites which may promote harmful behaviours’ (2). Indeed, the younger the age group, the more likely they are to talk to people they do not already know and to divulge private and sensitive information, from personal images to their address (3).

The media response has veered between sage nods at the reports’ apparent even-handedness and something more salacious. ‘Who’s looking at YOUR child?’ asked the Daily Mail ominously; ‘paedophiles and bullies’ answered the London Evening Standard.

However, the all too palpable fear of others’ nastiness infusing the reports and fueling the headlines is not something online technology has given rise to. For while they concentrate on the snazzy virtual world of social networking, the real sources of anxiety belong to the mutually distrustful social world in which networking sites have acquired their meaning.

Indeed, no online activity provides such potent metaphorical material as social networking. In other words, a discussion of social networking sites provides the terms in which to express a particular attitude towards social existence. Hence, despite the attempt to analyse and categorise aspects of the phenomenon in itself, discussion of social networking always seems to draw in a set of uncanny presumptions about the actual social world. Take this example from the Ofcom report: ‘Social networking sites… have some potential pitfalls to negotiate, such as the unintended consequences of publicly posting sensitive personal information, confusion over privacy settings, and contact with people one doesn’t know.’ (4) Talking about one’s sexual peccadilloes a little too loudly, over-familiarity with strangers… in substance, it’s a po-faced discussion of social etiquette that Jane Austen would recognise.

But what the report offers by way of insight is not born of conscious reflection upon the contemporary social world; it is rather the estranged perception of an administrative elite. Consequently, in the process of conceptualising these online networks, characterised by their ‘anonymity, ubiquity, and communicational potential’, the dark imaginings of officialdom are given free rein (5). Here, it’s like the social world but worse. The reign of those unknown unknowns of social interaction, be it the paedophile or the bully, expands exponentially. And likewise, the vulnerable citizen is never more vulnerable than when exposing him or herself, blind and on trust, to this vast, anonymous online throng, or, if you prefer, Bebo. From the perspective of policymakers, a real world disconnection from an atomised populace, seen as vulnerable and in need of protection, is amplified beyond recognition online.

The replacement of a realistic assessment of the harm social network sites pose to children with a cornucopia of potential depravity is most apparent in the discussion of the ‘risks’, the potential for ‘harm’, that children are apparently exposed to online. So, while flagging up ‘stranger danger’, ‘cyber-bullying’ and ‘exposure to content’ that may provoke ‘harmful behaviours’, the Ofcom report openly acknowledges that there ‘is a lack of information about any actual harm (as opposed to risk of harm) experienced by users of social networking sites’ (6). An awareness of risk, it seems, renders a lack of evidence redundant:

‘While the concern of regulators is with harm, much of the research reviewed here deals with the risk of harm (by measuring incidence of exposure to risk, risky behaviour, or the use of certain media contents which may be harmful to some, etc). Some of the evidence does demonstrate a link from exposure to “actual” ill effect, although this is generally measured either experimentally in the short-term or by using correlational methods which cannot rule out all confounding factors. However, we note that the above definition of harm includes both potential and actual ill effects, and thus we discuss harm largely in terms of possible influences on behaviour and attitudes.’ (7)

In other words, although there is little evidence of something bad happening, there’s no reason for it not to happen. So, while the reports, their coverage and the government’s guidelines on internet safety, to be announced tomorrow, assert the parental ignorance of the risks children face online – only 30 per cent of parents realised that their profiles were public, and only 53 per cent of all parents set rules for their kids’ internet useage – they do so on the basis not of any actual harm that has resulted, but only its possibility (8). Everything, here, hinges upon the nightmarish imagination of policymakers.

This exaggerated consciousness of risk, transformed into potential harm, demands, in turn, pre-emptive intervention. Where once it might have been assumed that parents should decide how best to look after their kids, particularly in public, the reports imply that parental ignorance of the risks online necessitates third-party involvement. As Byron said last week, ‘many parents seem to believe that when their child is online it is similar to them watching television. In fact, it is more like opening the front door and letting your child go outside to play unsupervised.’ (9)

Although it is unclear if the vast governmental apparatus suggested by Byron will materialise, including a UK council for child internet safety and an advisory group with child development and technology expertise, it seems certain that what many parents thought was a ‘fun and leisurely activity’ for their children, to cite the Byron report, will be subject to increasing regulation. This is not to imply that parents ought to leave children to their own devices, merely that it is up to parents, and not a panel of experts and neurotic bureaucrats, to draw the line. But as virtual risks eclipse real harm, the erosion of both parental authority and childhood continues apace.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Killick examined social networking sites in terms of the ‘death of privacy’. Nathalie Rothschild warned about overblown fears about Facebook. Amol Rajan thought Facebook was encouraging navel-gazing. Norman Lewis and Neil Barrett debated privacy online. The spiked/O2 debate U Txtng 2 me? examined the issues of young people and social networking. Or read more at spiked issue Privacy.

(1) Social Networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use, Ofcom, 2 April 2008, p.5

(2) Safer children in a digital world, DfES, 27 March 2008, p.4

(3) Social Networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use, Ofcom, 2 April 2008, pp.7-8

(4) Social Networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use, Ofcom, 2 April 2008, p.2

(5) Safer children in a digital world, DfES, 27 March 2008, p.5

(6) Social Networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use, Ofcom, 2 April 2008, p.9

(7) Safer children in a digital world, DfES, 27 March 2008, p.3

(8) Social Networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use, Ofcom, 2 April 2008, p.6

(9) Facebook, MySpace, Bebo face censorship orders, The Times, 28 March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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