THE BLOG

Why Our Virtual Failure to Protect Is Real Abuse

30/09/2015 16:48 BST | Updated 28/09/2016 10:12 BST

If David Cameron really did get jiggy with the head of a pig, it is fortunate for him that back then there wasn't Facebook. Probably, it is fortunate for most of us that the errors of our youths were not immortalised in the indelible ink of the ether. But of course today's young don't have that privilege. Or protection.

I use the word 'protection' deliberately because in many ways the proliferation of images on the Internet is a form of abuse. An abuse of the individual's right to a private life, an abuse of the (rapidly disappearing) innocence of childhood, and in some cases actual literal abuse.

Child shaming is one extreme illustration of this: viral images or videos of children being humiliated by their parents, sometimes in the proclaimed name of discipline (the kids with sandwich boards around their necks declaring that they stole/lied/sinned); other times purely for entertainment (babies laid next to notices revealing that they have pooped). But there is a whole spectrum of child imagery that is equally disturbing and not because of the intent behind them. Rather, because of the questions they demand about our waning ability to prioritise reality over the virtual, or perhaps even to distinguish between the two.

A friend of mine recently posted a video of his three-year-old daughter crying. I've no idea over what but the video showed her clearly sobbing while my friend lazed on the sofa filming her, his laughter heard as she hit the cushions in frustration. The video was very popular. How? How has this become acceptable? How is it acceptable to use the real-life distress of anybody but particularly a child as entertainment? How is it thinkable that a parent's first response to a child's tears is not to comfort or at least engage, but to reach for a camera? As though the immediate thought process is to cater to the virtual world, instead of the one literally demanding one's attention in reality right in front of us.

A few weeks ago I was at the local playground just as school was finishing for the day. The freshly uniformed year seven girls giggled into the park in their hoards, typically seeking to consolidate friendships, to validate their coolness, to feel accepted. They swarmed first to the roundabout, then to the swings, then to the slide. So far so normal. Except for the fact that on none of these pieces of equipment did they actually play. Not on one. Instead, they posed. They stood in a group on the roundabout and took a selfie of themselves huddled together. They took it in turns to sit two to a swing and lean backwards with their hair extended as though in the heights of motion, and took another snap. Then they postured on the top of the slide as though about to whizz down it. But nobody did. Nobody actually slid. Snap. Snap. On Facebook it would look as though they had slid, so what's the difference?

The difference, of course, is Life.

How sad. How sad not to have the wind whooshing past one's face while rushing from high to low. How sad to only know the pretence of it, the way it looks on a screen. How sad to merely construct it for the camera.

But of course, this is what many of us are doing every day. Every time we tweet or post or instagram, we are pausing from the actual doing of the thing to relay that supposed 'doing'. We are abandoning the moment in pursuit of documentation. We are sublimating the action in pursuit of reaction. Hashtags are replacing charity boxes. Followers supplant friends. It is no wonder whole families sit at tables with their eyes on their phones and not each other. The Internet undoubtedly has myriad benefits, but we are victims of our own adoration of it.

And this is the crux. Quite simply, the virtual world is no longer virtual. Certainly not for our young. The explosion of social media has transformed human interaction so that for many what happens online is just as 'real' as what happens off of it. Perhaps more so. It is therefore imperative that our rights within it, and particularly our children's rights, are fiercely protected.

Facebook's policy is that users are required to be over the age of 13. Likewise Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. But what of the images posted by adult users of younger children? Here there seems to be no limit. And no consent. Or what of images posted by children over the age of 13, of themselves, with their own consent, yet they far younger than most of us would agree is a reasonable age in which to give it? Is 13 really old enough to decide what we want the world to know about us forever? And what of the images they have not even consented to? Those posted by friends (or frenemies), from parties or bars or Oxford clubs...

It is no wonder the girls I watched no longer played in the playground. To swing or slide or spin is risky. Life is risky. It takes experimentation, trial, often error, the possibility of failing, of looking silly. And who wants to be shamed in the eyes of a scathing 'virtual' world?

In our worship of social media we are creating a generation of spin doctors, expert in how to portray their lives, but less good at how to live it. Until we put into place far more serious regulations that protect our young, we risk curtailing crucial freedoms the rest of us took for granted: freedom to mess up, to grow up, to change.

On the upside, perhaps today's Bullingdon boys will spare the actual pig and simply pose next to it.