The negative implications of children’s use of the Internet, particularly their loss of innocence through access to pornography, is a topic frequently addressed in public discussions and debate. These debates often take on a technologically determinist point of view and assume that technology directly influences children, usually in a harmful fashion. But what is really happening in the Australian family home? Are parents fearful of these risks, and if so what are they doing about it?
A recent exploration of the everyday Internet lives of Australian families indicates that families manage these perceived risks in a variety of ways and are not overly troubled about this issue. Findings from the research project indicate that Australian parents are more concerned about some children’s excessive use of the Internet than about pornography. They construct the Internet as interfering with time available to carry out homework, chores, getting adequate sleep or participating in outdoor (fresh air) activities.
This disparity, between public discourse regarding the protection of children in the online environment and the actual significance of this issue in the everyday lives of Australian families, reflects the domestic dynamics within the “moral economy of the household”, whereby family relationships and household practices inform the manner in which technology is consumed within any given household.
The research project described here (Family Internet: Theorising Domestic Internet Consumption, Production and Use Within Australian Families) is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant and investigates Internet use within Australian homes with specific reference to families with school-aged children. It explores how individual family members make sense of their family’s engagement with the Internet and investigates ways in which the Internet is integrated within Australian family life.
The relationship between children and technology is often addressed in public debates regarding children’s health, safety, social and educational development. Within these debates technology is usually held responsible for a variety of harmful consequences to children. These technological “effects” range from the decline of children’s social relationships (with both peers and family); through sedentary lifestyles which impinge on fitness levels and the weight (body mass index) of children; to the corruption of children (and their loss of innocence) through access to unsuitable materials. These unsuitable texts include “soft and hardcore porn, Neo Nazi groups, paedophiles, racial and ethnic hatred”.
Other digital technologies, such as computer and video games, are sometimes seen as exacerbating these problems and raise the spectre of the “Nintendo kid”, friendless and withdrawn, lacking in social skills and unable to relate to others except through multi-player games - although this caricature appears far removed from children’s normal experience of computer gaming.
Such debates about the negative implications of the Internet and video games run simultaneously alongside government, educational and commercial promotion of these technologies, and the positioning of digital skills and connectivity as the key to children’s future education and employment. In this pro-technology discourse the family:
…Is being constructed as an entry point for the development of new computer-related literacies and social practices in young people … what is discursively produced within the global cultural economy as digital fun and games for young people, is simultaneously constructed as serious business for parents.
Thus, two conflicting discourses about children’s Internet use exist simultaneously whereby children are considered both “technically competent and at risk from their technical skills”. This anxiety is further exacerbated by the fear that parents are losing control of their children’s Internet activities because their own technical competencies are being surpassed by their children. Such fear may well be based on misleading information, particularly in the Australian context. The Australian Broadcasting Authority’s 2001 Internet@home report “challenges the popular belief that parents lag behind their children in their interest and proficiency with online technology. Most often the household Internet 'expert' is an adult”.
Nonetheless, this public anxiety is underscored by a concern that parents may not be sufficiently Internet-savvy to prevent their children’s access to pornography and other undesirable Internet content. This leads to the fundamental anxiety that parents’ natural power base will be diminished. In the case of children’s access to Internet porn it may well be that:
Athough parents still occupy the role of initiated with regard to sexuality, if they are uninitiated technologically then they lose the power base from which to set the markers for progressive socialisation.
These popular fears do not take into consideration the context of Internet use in the real world - of children’s and parents’ actual experiences with and uses of the Internet. Parents have developed a variety of ways to manage these perceived risks in the home and are not usually overly concerned about their children’s exposure to unsuitable or inappropriate content on the Internet.
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