Here it comes, our brave new world of protection. Thanks to our Prime Minister, cheered on by the press (or should that be the other way around?) this is the world that’s heading your way.
People have been saying ever since the porn filter plans that it would (a) fail to block porn and (b) block things which aren’t porn and which are actually quite useful – for example, things which help children find out about sexual abuse, advice on pregnancy and abortion, and even stuff such as “respect for a partner”.
Respect for a partner. Imagine if children happened upon that by accident. Imagine the damage that could be done with them if, accidentally looking for some kind of childish thing, they learn about respecting a partner. They could be ruined beyond repair and all the hard work that parents would have done would be undone overnight. The horror!
Whether or not you accept that pornography might damage children, it’s the idea of restricting access to information that seems to be wrong. Information about relationships is not pornography and it is not damaging. It is something that everyone should know about, to protect children from abuse (so that they can know what abuse is, for example) as children and as adults. It helps children and young adults make informed decisions about their bodies.
But there is always this resistance to knowledge, as if knowing is somehow doing or encouraging. It’s the same prejudice and fear that brought about the evil of Section 28, where educators were prevented from depicting anything other than heterosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Thankfully those days are gone, but the more rabid elements of the Tory Party continue to push for drawing a veil over reality. Think of the children, they say. But they are not thinking of the children.
I’ve taught a couple of lessons on relationships in primary schools this year. (I’ve worked from PSHE materials previously approved by government so haven’t gone above and beyond what I “should” do.) Year 6 children, for example, can be surprisingly mature when it comes to discussing how some people are different; I’ve heard 10 and 11 year olds be frank and intelligent when talking about how they know some people are gay, or transgender, or live a different way, and how that doesn’t affect them. Not a giggle. The knowledge is there already, and so is the prejudice and use of language: children call each other “gay” in the playground long before you’re supposed to talk to them about what it means and why. It’s ridiculous.
Children are having these conversations and adults need to be involved, not to steer children towards a certain lifestyle or to instruct, but to shed light and understanding. I may not have done much of a note as a teacher in my short career but I have been able to talk to a class of children who wanted to know about sexuality and transgender issues, and why some people are the way they are. I’ve been able to say “Look, I think this is OK”, and been able to model a kind of – not tolerance or acceptance, because those are the wrong words – worldly view in which I’m like this, you’re like that, this person is like that, and that’s all right, and some people disagree, but that’s how we are. And ask “what do you think?” and hear some enlightened views.
We might want kids to stay children for as long as possible, but I don’t know how possible it is. They’re surrounded by messages all the time, not just in the media, but from everyone they know. I don’t think they can be shielded, even if we try. I think it’s better to accept that children know more than we did when they’re 10 and 11 and do something about it.
I wish we would do more. The porn blocking debate is not about blocking porn – if only it were, it would be more interesting and useful – but about trying to restrict all kinds of content from children. Some features, such as homework times, seem eminently reasonable. Other things, such as trying to manage all kinds of content, seem like they could close down information just when it is needed, and probably for those young people who might need it the most.
Leave it to the parents, you might say. And I accept that, I do. But I think it’s providing a false sense of security to think that these filters are in any way effective – more than that, though, they’re actively a bad idea. You can’t really block porn, however hard you try; yet you can prevent children from seeing the kinds of website that might provide important and useful information. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. People have been saying this ever since the plans were mooted, yet no one has listened.
Think of the children? I wish we would.