Many cable television programs my wife and I watch are preceded by a statement like this, usually delivered in a weighty baritone as the words appear on the screen:
The following program may contain scenes of violence,
nudity, strong language, and adult themes.
It is intended for mature audiences only.
Viewer discretion is advised.
The warnings are so prevalent, we hardly notice them. As adults of reasonably sound mind, we’re confident in our ability to choose what to watch, based on our own sense of what is acceptable.
But there is no question that these programs are not appropriate for children.
Similarly, among the books I’ve written and published, there are four novels, crime thrillers, that are not suitable for children, given the graphic nature of some of the situations depicted. Such scenes are not presented for gratuitous reasons; they are necessary to the stories’ authenticity and credibility. Consequently, I include the following statement on the copyright page of each book:
This book contains adult language and mature themes.
Reader discretion is advised.
Time was, such warnings would have been unnecessary. Not because there were no programs or books unsuitable for children; those have always been around. But there were rules and boundaries designed to protect youngsters from exposure to them—sometimes established and enforced by parents, sometimes by government edict, sometimes by purveyors and sellers of the material.
I can remember there being ‘prime-time programs’ that aired only after I had gone to bed. And I remember books on high shelves in libraries, for adults only. I understood and rarely questioned why those were not for me.
Of course, there were loopholes. Just as enterprising children have always found ways to obtain cigarettes, or to sneak into movie theatres, so also were they able to gain exposure to off-limits programs and books. Some parents were more lax than mine, so staying overnight with a friend whose folks were out for the evening, for example, might allow an exploration of forbidden territory. I was amazed to discover how many of my friends’ fathers had stashes of Playboy magazine, supposedly securely hidden from eager, adolescent eyes.
But for the most part, we were sheltered from violence, nudity, and profane language by the social safety-net around us. We were allowed to discover the adult world in our own good time; and when it confused us, as it often did, we had parents or older friends to help us make sense of it all.
The advent and exponential growth of the global internet over the past three decades has wrought quite a change. Today’s children (at least those in the developed world) have easy access to e-mail, instant messaging, social networking sites, online games, blogs and forums, interactive video calls, and everything else the worldwide web has to offer. And it offers a lot, including all the mature-theme stuff that once upon a time was shielded from impressionable minds.
As a writer, I am immensely grateful for the plethora of knowledge the internet makes available to me at the keyboard I haunt—most of it free, accurate, and up-to-date. I am my own researcher, able to pick and pluck knowledge from an endless number of sources, information which informs the stories I write. I am nowhere near as intelligent or informed as a reading of those books might imply; but the internet allows me to appear that I am (or so I hope my readers might believe).
The internet, therefore, is not an evil empire in my opinion. Yes, it’s a living entity, in that it evolves and adapts to the world around, but it has no sentient ability. It’s just there. In Latin, hoc est, ideo est—it exists; therefore, it is!
So no, my worry is not that the internet has become an integral part of our lives. Rather, my concern is with its accessibility to young people who are singularly unprepared to deal with everything it offers. One doesn’t need to visit the so-called dark web in order to find examples of unspeakable violence, including torture and murder; or graphic pornography, including misogyny and bestiality; or blatant xenophobia, including racism and bigotry. It’s all available through home computers for anyone to access.
If you doubt that, try surveying the video games that are offered to anyone with access to a credit card. Many are educational and fun, it’s true; but so many others are extremely violent, the pain and consequences of which are not felt by the gamer who is experiencing the mayhem vicariously. Don’t like that guy? Blow him away!
Or take a digital stroll through online blogs and websites that espouse all manner of intolerance and hatred, spewing vitriol and calls-for-action against targeted groups. Don’t like those people? Lock ‘em up!
And after you’ve looked at these sites, consider the effect that repeated exposure to them might have on the pliable mind of a ten-year-old, for example. We hear too often these days about ‘home-grown terrorists’ who attack innocent people, including children in schools and worshippers in churches and mosques. And in so many cases, they are exactly that—home-grown, shaped and motivated by their insidious and lonely online pursuits.
So how can this exposure of children to the unsavoury aspects of the internet be stopped? What is the answer? Censorship?
In our democratic society, with its sacrosanct belief in free speech, censorship is a dirty word. And how could it be accomplished, anyway? Would issuing warnings like this have any discernible effect?
The internet contains sites featuring extreme violence, including
murder; hateful language, including racist and religious pejoratives;
misogyny, including rape and mutilation; xenophobic representations, including
torture and enslavement; and other similar depictions intended to titillate and amuse.
It is intended for mature, autonomous, and socially well-adjusted audiences only.
User discretion is advised.
I think not. In fact, I believe it must come back to what it’s always been—the nurturing of young minds by caring and conscientious parents, family and friends, and teachers. And these guardians of children (and the children themselves) need to know that it’s okay to impose limits, to set boundaries, and to refuse permissions. Not forever, and not to the point of stifling curiosity and the desire to learn. But for long enough to allow children’s brains to experience childhood and adolescence before being exposed to the more unsavoury aspects of adulthood.
In his poem, The Rainbow, William Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man…”, widely interpreted to mean that who we become as adults is irrevocably determined by how we are shaped as children.
I often consider who today’s youngsters, children of the internet and all it proffers, will be when they are grown.
And I wonder, if I were still here, whether I would like them.