Many parents overreact to the risks that sexting, cyberbullying and explicit online material pose to their children and take steps to protect them that backfire, according to two academics.
They accuse parents and some politicians of creating a “moral panic” that exaggerates and misunderstands the digital threats to children.
In their book Invisibly Blighted: The Digital Erosion of Childhood, academics from University College London (UCL) and Plymouth University Business School say that parents are eroding childhood experiences and creating anxiety and mistrust by reacting in a disproportionate way.
They said wealthy parents were the worst culprits and described some parents resorting to using tracking devices and other technology to control, block or monitor their children’s internet usage. Teenagers told the authors that such techniques had caused them anxiety and had prevented harmless attempts to find out about sexual health and sexuality.
The book is critical of David Cameron and the Conservative politician Claire Perry, who led a parliamentary inquiry that called for internet service providers to provide content filters. It also singled out the crossbench peer Baroness Howe of Idlicote, who introduced a similar private member’s bill.
The authors say that sexting is misunderstood by parents and politicians, and that teenagers have worked out their own code to deal with it that emphasises the principle of consent.
“There is a new morality that is springing up that it’s okay for one kid to send another kid a picture but the minute that it goes beyond that it is almost like a moral crime has occurred,” said Sandra Leaton Gray, a lecturer at UCL’s institute of education, and one of the authors. “It is almost as if young people are moving slowly towards a new morality and a new code of conduct and our legal framework and our adult world isn’t quite there.”
Their book says that it has never been safer to be a child but, instead of enjoying a period of freedom, children are subjected to disproportionate restrictions because of a constant anxiety felt by many parents.