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From the Memory Loss series, 2011, Eva Kotatkova
Courtesy the artist and The Conduits

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Children easily comprehend the web—almost as easily as new parents grasp fear. Exploring his computer’s “parental controls” for the first time, JONATHAN BELL tries to preserve his innocence a little longer.

Every generation must feel like it’s on the cusp of a great transition, as we watch how the things we struggled to understand are taken for granted by our children, and how new, stranger things arrive to take their place and challenge our comprehension all over again.

Earlier in our son’s life, we thought we were pretty smart for turning to YouTube as a quick and easy source of entertainment that didn’t involve turning on the television. YouTube was only born three months after he was, and by the time he was old enough to take an interest, there were, well, thousands of things to look at. For a start, plenty of enterprising souls had kindly and illegally uploaded entire shows for our instant viewing pleasure (although at this point in time, “viewing pleasure” mostly consisted of Thomas the Tank Engine). We happily racked up the views and preserved our fragile DVDs for another day.

But it soon transpired that YouTube was not a safe place for casual browsing. Tucked in amongst the myriad fan-created stop-motion animations of Thomas and his chunky wooden pals impacting upon living room furnishings from Alabama to Andover were the occasional “darker” pieces, strictly adult-themed reworkings of the original animations, with new voiceovers and very different language. And so we established the mantra of the “bad one,” wherein without further explanation or exploration, a link or video could be swiftly exited if we deemed it “bad.” So far, this has worked surprisingly well.

Still the question remains. How, why and when will we need to impose some kind of parental controls? Perhaps we’re marching obliviously into the future, by refusing from the outset to see the internet in terms of a mire of vice, intrigue, deception, rebellion, and danger, and by not battening down the hatches in response. Ask us again in five years’ time, the answer might be very different. But right now, we’re happy to let him sally forth into this benighted virtual land, while watching from a few paces behind, occasionally steering him away from the quicksand or the briar patch.

So it seemed sensible to sample the lay of the land and try and discern exactly what our son understands of the digital era in which he lives. Unfortunately, as soon as I switch into interview mode, I begin to get the rote, rigid answers that have driven teachers mad for centuries. This in turn froze up the questions, so the following exchange is not exactly rich with insight.

I began with a philosophical question: So what is the internet for?

“For writing and sometimes playing games.”

How did you learn to use it?

“Because my daddy teaches me.”

Are you able to work any computer?

“Well, not all of them, because some look really tricky when you try them.”

Can you work the computers at school?

“If my teacher asks us to play games…. We also get to draw.”

How do you draw on a computer?

“We go to the ICT room [information and communications technology] and we use computers.”

Do you know what programs you use?


How about something more abstract? Describe the internet.

“The internet is a type of thing you do work on. Work for your work.”

What else does the internet do?

“It helps you learn. Doesn’t it?”

What things help you learn?

“I see writing to help me write stuff that’s quite difficult.”

What does the internet look like?

“It has a square and it has a stand. And there’s a mouse flicking out and lots of letters.”

How do you get [Lego] Pharaoh’s Quest?

“I clicked ‘L’ and it was showing Pharaoh’s Quest. And that’s how I got it. And I love playing it. Can you tell them that?”


Computer featuring a Star Wars spaceship

The internet, by the author’s six-year-old son

So how to describe the way in which my eldest child uses a computer? For a start, it’s not really a computer, in the sense that it doesn’t compute things. In these early school years, when questions aren’t yet being asked, the idea of the computer as a machine that helps formulate answers has not even been broached. Occasionally we look things up. More likely, we find a picture of someone or something. But most of the time, the computer is a portal, a device that sits on the kitchen table or our bed and provides a window into other worlds of our choosing. Most of the time, this view is relatively unchanging and un-complex, consisting of a well curated and carefully overseen selection of TV shows served up on demand (for the laptop also doubles as a television set).

The internet is a pretty abstract concept to most of us adults. We make sense of it through metaphors—mental maps, walled gardens, pages and pages. But to a six-year-old, there’s no need for abstraction. Ever since he was born, my son has known computer screens. And ever since he was born, we have conspired to make those screens deliver exactly what he wants. Naturally, we underestimate him. After language comes reading, and with reading comes typing. Left to his own devices, it doesn’t take much initiative to type “Lego Pharaoh’s Quest” into that tempting blank search box, especially when nine times out of 10 all one needs is that initial “L” and the autocomplete does the rest. Gratification is instant and interest is sated. But Google is a poor babysitter, and it’s those one out of 10 rogue results that pose the problems. Steer away from the well-trodden path of commercial websites and things get thorny pretty fast.


* * *

Forewarned is apparently forearmed. I grind my teeth at the relentless marketing push behind the exploding galaxies of “child-friendly” social networks that includes, but is not remotely limited to, Disney’s Club Penguin, Lego Universe, Moshi Monsters, and Habbo Hotel. At the same time, one has to assume these opaque and complex worlds are somehow safe zones with all the necessary protections built in. A whole industry has seemingly grown up to investigate, track, and decode the ways in which children move through these spaces, how they interact, bond, and break apart. One dips into this literature at one’s peril, for this is where the grownup world hesitantly inks in “here be dragons” across large swaths of contemporary culture and then shrugs its collective shoulders in despair.

Just to see what they were, I typed “parental controls” into the help dialogue box on my laptop. But it all requires passwords and concentration and the inevitable promise of being inadvertently shut out from our own system.We are not there yet. My wife and I are far happier to extol the virtues of the BBC’s iPlayer, a TV-on-demand service that has, in a nutshell, made it not only possible to live without a conventional television, but (in our humble opinion) actually preferable. Unlike YouTube, iPlayer offers fewer possibilities for “bad ones,” but also a rather more worrying and straightforward upgrade path from pre-school appropriate material through school age and beyond. Calm, character-driven animation is swiftly passed over in favor of raucous sketch shows pitched at media-savvy tweenies. It’s a rapid but inevitable transition; one our son’s three-year-old sister is making at an alarming pace as she’s dragged along behind him.

Just to see what they were, I typed “parental controls” into the help dialogue box on my laptop. It appears to be pretty simple stuff—block particular programs, apply time limits, ensure age-appropriate software can only be used by the appropriate ages. But it all requires passwords and concentration and the inevitable promise of being inadvertently shut out from our own system. More complex, highly customized “solutions” are not hard to find, for the internet is awash with blacklists and whitelists and specialist software for filtering the deluge.

We just aren’t there yet. Right now, we still have the advantage of technical adeptness, the arcane knowledge that evolves over time and teaches you to reboot routers, flush caches, and ping distant servers in order to kick-start a dead connection. For this particular six-year-old, these blockages are a source of intense, rage-inducing frustration, and not a challenge to be overcome. But there will come a time when his knowledge usurps ours.


* * *

We all have anecdata about the technical precocity of our children. Someone once said that technology describes things that didn’t exist when you were born; hence to the ‘60s and ‘70s generation, the television set was not considered “technology” as such, merely a part of everyday life. VCRs, handheld video games, Sony Walkmans, and early home computers were the leading edge of the technological wave that defined our childhood. My generation is, apparently, “Generation PC,” swept up in a technological whirl but ultimately adapting to be able to take everything in. Perhaps this accounts for the lack of urgency. By the early 1980s, most children I knew had access to a family computer, usually tucked away in a study or living room. Most were used for games, some for education, and some for actual computer programming. They were simple 8-bit machines, purchased in the frenzied consumer afterglow that followed the white heat of Britain’s first domestic computing revolution, spearheaded by Clive Sinclair and his ZX81 and ZX Spectrum.

Computer games were expensive and addictive. Before long, they were pretty much all I could think about. I daydreamed about the perfect game. I doodled designs for elaborate game worlds and cartoon-like characters. I devoured the computer magazines with their amazing maps, hints, and tips. But this enthusiasm also sucked up time, time inevitably spent slack-jawed in front of a glowing TV, pushing pixels and sprites around the screen. Thirty years later, the simple landscapes of my favorite early video games remain burned into my psyche.

I also don’t remember being actively discouraged from these activities. In fact, I was aghast at the strictures that governed how some friends used their computers; half an hour here, 15 minutes there, no games before homework, etc. I was vaguely aware that there were some children who used the computer more than others, perhaps at the expense of riding their bike or driving their remote-controlled car. Perhaps they were the ones that needed a bit of a framework. For me, parental control was a simple application of the off switch. Content was determined by the amount of available pocket money. Violence was abstracted in the extreme, profanity was unheard. Interaction with other humans had yet to be invented. And sex was something that couldn’t conceivably be related to computers. Thank goodness.

For me, parental control was a simple application of the off switch. Content was determined by the amount of available pocket money. Violence was abstracted in the extreme, profanity was unheard. My own fragments of spare time were sliced up into increasingly smaller fragments before slipping away with adulthood. The six-hour-straights of solid gameplay demanded by a modern console or PC game soon became logistically impossible. The occasional news story about the fatal collapse of a physically exhausted MMORPGer helped nurture my associations between excessive gaming and potentially destructive computer use.

So for now, given my own childish proclivities, it is the lure of virtual lands and endless, pointless cyber-roaming that seems to pose the most serious threat to the childhoods we are currently steering. Of course this will change. But right now it’s the web as a place, or collection of places, rather than a communications medium, that is the most helpful method of organization. The act of being online lends itself to metaphor. We probably all have our own mental maps of cyberspace, the networks of paths, canyons, trails and cul-de-sacs that we find ourselves navigating via a familiar progression of clicks.

Nostalgia is a welcome fog. Today, I am able to use a free mobile phone application to emulate the computer system I owned as a child. The games to which I had once devoted hour upon hour of intense concentration are replicated precisely, in miniature, on a screen I can squint at on the bus or the Tube. I don’t play them, of course. Instead, I just load them up and pore over the details, the faint beeps and blocky menu screens, the crude animations and opening screens that all transport me back in time.

I haven’t bothered to show these precise facsimiles of the artifacts of my youthful computer use to my son. There would be no point of reference, no marveling at the lack of graphic sophistication. He knows and understands computer games, although his points of reference are the thousands of games that are piped into the home through a browser. He knows about Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, and DS, but we have none of these things and so far peer pressure hasn’t tipped him into resentment at their absence. A friend’s Xbox or DS is a distraction, not an unwelcome symbol of his deprivation. As yet, our own laptops aren’t equated with consoles and the cornucopia of delights that they can bring. If you can’t dance and jump and flap your arms about in front of a laptop, what use is it for playing games?

Kevin Kelly’s collection of anecdotes about tech-savvy tots, “Born Digital,” portrays children’s incomprehension at the UI failures of the real world. They’re cute, but then so is the story of a friend’s father calling him in desperation one day because he couldn’t move the mouse pointer any further to the side of the screen; he had reached the edge of the mousepad. The point is not just to point and laugh, but to remember that we have all been lost in technology and will inevitably get lost again as our maps are redrawn.

For my children, as for many others, the internet is first and foremost an extension of a games console or TV. From this, it’s almost impossible to venture how and when their holistic understanding—a mental map—of the web is formed. There are no concrete absolutes as no parent can claim—or even pretend—that how they do things is best. It’s best to stick to metaphors, tipping only occasionally into cliché, to describe a path through the web. For the hard, bare facts are somewhat unsavory—entrapment, pornography, maxed-out credit cards—and we’d rather stay oblivious to them for just a little while longer.

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TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell