Do you have children and do you worry what the internet does to their tender minds? Well, fret not. The internet has been an established feature of social life for nearly 20 years now. That’s long enough for an entire generation of children to reach adulthood. But if the internet has been turning young people into a bunch of promiscuous, violent yobs then there is not much evidence for it. In much of the Western world, young people, confounding the low expectations of moralists, have been behaving better. In the UK, both teenage pregnancies and youth crime rates continue to fall. That is not to say that there are not problems. It’s tough being young, in many respects. Just think about how hard it is to get on the housing ladder – but that has nothing to do with the internet.
Still, there is no better target for adult moralists than the internet. Nicky Morgan, the UK Education Secretary has demanded that schools in England must set online filters and monitor pupils’ internet use under plans to protect them from radicalisation. Ministers are worried that extremists could target school children via computers. According to Mrs Morgan, some pupils had been able to access information about Islamic State at school.
Well, if they have, then so what? Pupils can access information about Islamic State for all manner of places. They hear about them on the evening news or maybe even on Newsround, the BBC’s long-standing news service for children. They might even be able to access this information from a computer at school. Does it matter if they do it at school or through Newsround? What do we fear will happen if they access it? That they’ll become suicide bombers? Why is it assumed that the Islamic State has such a lure for children?
Earlier in 2015 three East London schoolgirls of Bengali descent decided to run off to Syria, to join the Islamic State. It appears that Morgan’s proposals – a classic government knee-jerk reaction – are inspired by this example. We don’t know why the girls – on the verge of being young adults – decided to do what they did. It may well be they were inspired by an online recruiter but the girls’ former school’s principal has stated that the girls could not access social media from their school’s computers.
But we are missing the point. We are making all the wrong assumptions and asking all the wrong questions. We are assuming that the girls were ‘infected’ by an idea, that the internet was the vector of that idea and that, when so infected, they were no longer responsible for what they were doing. If only they were kept away from the source of the infection, all would have been well.
The assumption is that children are empty vessels, free of their own motivations. All extremists have to do is to come along and fill it. That assumption is false. Those girls were not automatons – they assented to an idea. We are asking the wrong question when we obsess about where they encountered the idea. The question is what made them susceptible to that idea in the first place. What was the power of that idea? What appeal did it have to cause them to abandon their families for the hell-hole of a Syrian warzone?
Prevention is no doubt far better than cure. Mrs Morgan’s idea of prevention, to keep ‘our children safe’, is to insulate them from radical ideas. This is not going to work. There are only two ways it could work. One is to shut down the internet and ban all electronics. The second is to develop an intensive system of prophylactic surveillance which in all likelihood would be directed against ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslims, carrying the implicit stigma that they cannot be trusted. The resulting resentment this will generate will create more problems than it solves.
Whether at school, at home, or on the street, children are going to encounter bad ideas. Or bad ideas are going to encounter them. The price of preventing this through yet more surveillance – as there is not enough surveillance already – is going to be too high to be worth pursuing.
What we should be doing is teaching critical thinking skills, to resist the lure of bad ideas. Teach children how to think. Give them examples of diseased thought systems against which to sharpen their wits. That means, teach them about the existence of extremist ideas in order to combat them. Don’t pretend movements like IS do not exist. Understand and critique the ideas. The same goes for other pernicious ideas that we want to keep children away from. Teach the holocaust in schools but teach holocaust denial, too, in order to learn the difference between genuine and pseudo-history.
This idea of prevention doesn’t pretend that no one will slip through the net. Despite our best efforts, some will be radicalised and there is nothing we can do about that. The better way – not the perfect way – is to combat bad ideas with better ideas. Children don’t need to be protected from adult realities. They need to be taught how to prepare for them.