That’s the horrendous question recently asked of the author by her eight-year-old daughter. Lockdown is forcing young people to spend ever more time on the internet – and they’re encountering its darker corners
Names have been changed
My eight-year-old daughter, Louise, had become fired up at school about Tudor history, so, stuck at home together over Christmas, we created our own film season: The Other Boleyn Girl, Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love.
“Yuck,” said Louise, when characters were kissing, and I fast-forwarded over some more explicit scenes. I marvelled at how her class teacher had circumvented explaining Anne Boleyn’s beheading without touching on incest or adultery, and I wondered how – or when – I was supposed to teach Louise about sex.
In recent months, I’ve had to introduce Louise to some painful matters: racism, slavery, suicide, murder, the Holocaust, and even – after she found the roller skates she’d requested from Santa hidden in our garage – the truth about Father Christmas. Yet I was being squeamish about this most basic fact of life. I asked a friend what she thought. “Surely old-fashioned sex is the least traumatising thing compared to the other list you’ve had to negotiate!” she counselled. “I’m sure she’ll think it’s hilarious.”
Louise had previously been under the impression that human babies were made on Petri dishes in fertility clinics because this was part of her own birth legend. On a wintry walk in our local nature reserve, I took a deep breath and brought up the subject of how babies have traditionally been made. Louise was a bit embarrassed, at first. Then she asked: “What’s a fuck buddy, Mum?”
Warning bells began ringing loudly.
A few weeks earlier, I’d removed parental restrictions from the built-in browser on Louise’s tablet – an Amazon Fire Kids Edition – to facilitate some independent research on red pandas, her passion during the first lockdown. Then, in line with government guidelines for PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education, Louise’s teacher had taught her class about some of the physical differences between boys and girls.
As I now know from sifting through Louise’s viewing history, straight after that PSHE class, she had looked up some keywords on Bing: “nippul”, “doobe” (for “boobies”), “naked doy kissing girl” (she still sometimes writes her ‘b’s the wrong way round), and “kissing without clouthing”. Bing’s algorithm was less confused than many readers by Louise’s phonics and, to my horror, she had been directed to some hardcore porn. Mostly raunchy girl-on-girl action, but her browsing had also included doggy-style penetrative sex. “Wanna be my fuck buddy?” was the caption on a pop-up ad.
There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Now it’s a case of persuading Louise that those ladies she thought looked as though they might be in pain were, in fact, being paid to display their “privates” to strangers. That I wasn’t angry with her for having stumbled onto pornographic websites but saddened because she had discovered a wretched corner of the adult world that debases women and cheapens sex. That sex should be an act of intimacy between people who trust each other.
Louise says she doesn’t understand why anyone would want to make a baby “by sex,” when they could “do it in a chemist”.
We bought Louise’s first tablet when she was two years old so we could survive a return trip to Scotland. Once she discovered the joys of Octonauts and Peppa Pig, it became a difficult habit to break. Real world diversions are usually the most effective tactic, but with schools closed – along with museums, trampoline parks, swimming pools, libraries, zoos, playgrounds, even in-store classes at Apple – for much of last year’s lockdown, Louise, an only child, had to make do with a skipping rope and baking banana bread. Just as Zoom replaced office meetings, yoga classes and funerals, and social chatter reduced to WhatsApp threads exchanging Netflix recommendations, so children too sank ever deeper into a digital chasm.
During the winter lockdown, schools were required to provide at least three hours’ education a day. Kids became practically chained to computers. Louise accidentally smashed the Fire tablet, but luckily her school lent us a Chromebook laptop on which anything remotely suspect had been firewalled – much to Louise’s initial annoyance, especially now she was obliged to sit through tedious Zoom classes and lengthy video lessons about the Alps that were, for Louise at least, eye-wateringly dull.
And, of course, this isn’t just about my daughter. Lockdowns have made the past year unspeakably difficult for families with school-aged kids, and the consequences are now becoming evident. Boredom and isolation will have driven many children towards more extreme online activities. Parents working from home can’t oversee every search, nor police every ad that pops up, because porn is everywhere. Yes, there’s software available to put it under lock and key – the digital equivalent of a cocktail cabinet – but what self-respecting ten-year-old hasn’t learnt all their parents’ passwords by heart or how to hook up to their neighbour’s Wi-Fi?
This has been an area of governmental attention in the past. Previous efforts to protect children from viewing adult content online have included, in 2013, introducing nationwide filters through internet service providers. Access was restricted, inconveniently, not just to sexually explicit material but also to online educational, medical and emergency resources, and take-up was minimal. The digital-native teenagers at the centre of the Everyone’s Invited scandal would have been Louise’s age at that time: their childhood has been a global experiment in psy-ops.
Then the Digital Economy Act of 2017 required porn sites to verify the age of their visitors, with fines of up to £250,000 for any that failed to comply, but this requirement was dropped in 2019 due to technical difficulties and protests by outraged advocates of privacy and free speech.
And now the government’s response to its Online Harms White Paper, published in December 2020, seems to hint at big ambitions. It hopes to “make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”. This includes a general requirement: “All companies likely to be accessed by children will have to prioritise the protection of children. These companies will need to put in place measures to keep children safe from harmful activity and prevent them from accessing age-inappropriate or harmful content.”
Ofcom will regulate this “online harms regime”, imposing fines for non-compliance of up to £18 million or ten per cent of a company’s annual turnover, whichever is higher. Ofcom will also be authorised to take enforcement action against companies providing services to UK users, irrespective of where they are based in the world….
Yeah, whatever. “Pie” and “sky” come immediately to mind. British Ofcom agents busting porn merchants in Amsterdam or Limassol sounds like a plot-line from a bad sci-fi movie.
Due to the pandemic, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has delayed bringing a draft of the bill to parliament until the end of 2021. It won’t become law until 2023 or 2024, 13 years after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s 2010 manifesto pledge to tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. Meanwhile, the onus for online protection remains with parents.
I was shamefully naïve to suppose that a company such as Amazon would design a tablet with young users’ wellbeing at its heart. Maybe every electronic device should be sold – like cigarette packets – with a warning, advising owners to take precautions if children are likely to have access.
Once we had returned to Louise’s school the laptop lent to us during the lockdown, we bought her her own Chromebook to replace it. “You don’t need to be an expert on the internet to help keep your child stay safe online,” says the advice centre at SaferInternet. I certainly thought I had put in all the necessary content filters. But they were insufficient for my curious child, and the porn site xHamster.com soon appeared in her Google search history.
Next, I tried CleanBrowsing’s free porn-blocking filters, a task not for the technically challenged. You need to interpret scary sentences such as “IP addresses accept DNS request to the standard port 53 and 5353. DNS over TLS is available over port 853 and DNScrypt over port 8443”. I turned to the technical department at our broadband provider, Zen Internet, for help. Mohammed patiently talked me through changing the DNS server on our router, which I hope will do the trick. However, while even harmless comments under YouTube videos are now hidden from view, researching this article, I could still access www.fuckpal.com where “you don’t have to worry about being called a slut or a pig for asking to hookup”.
Today’s schoolchildren are taught about Internet safety: about creating strong passwords; not revealing private information to someone they know only online; what to do if they encounter cyber bullies; even how to recognise when a website is trying to persuade them to buy something. In Year 2, had schools been open for business, Louise would have learnt that children stay safe online by choosing websites that are good for them to visit, and avoiding sites that are not appropriate.
But how do you teach children about something that they aren’t allowed to see?
A few days after schools reopened, and while Sarah Everard’s brutal murder was still front page news, Louise came home very animated: “Mum, what’s rape?” she asked. “It’s a bright yellow crop,” I tried, “and we make oil from it.” “No, Mum, I know it’s got something to do with sex. Two boys told me, ‘You’re rape.’ So I told them, ‘You’re rape.’ And then we all got into trouble for using a swear word.” So now I’ve had to add non-consensual sex to the growing list of ugly human experiences Louise knows about.
Has watching porn contributed to the toxic rape culture now being exposed in schools? The NSPCC warns that children who watch sexually explicit content are at greater risk of developing unrealistic attitudes about sex and consent, negative attitudes about roles and identities in relationships, more casual attitudes about sex and sexual relationships, an increase in “risky” sexual behaviour, and unrealistic expectations of body image and performance. Some studies show that teens’ exposure to porn is no cause for alarm, but there is little research on the effect it has on younger children. Perhaps because such empirical studies would, themselves, be unethical.
“I’m an adult, I made a choice,” Kim Wexler tells Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul to explain why she alone is responsible for her own misfortune when she crashes her car. We don’t let children buy cigarettes or alcohol, open a bank account or vote in an election, but to watch one of xHamster’s pornstars, a chubby redhead dressed in school uniform, giving blowjobs and being fucked by a man whose face we never see, all your child needs to do is click on the red button that says, “I’m 18 or older.”
A child under the age of 13 can never consent to any sexual activity. Nor can they open accounts with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, though many younger kids do. But most of us carry in our back pockets and leave on our desktops devices through which children can, in just a few clicks, find digital tribes that would encourage self-harm, body dysphoria, terrorism, gambling, bullying, disinformation, or which trivialise violent sex. No wonder helicopter parents have morphed into snowploughs: for the rising generation, perhaps the greatest danger is now in our own homes.