The internet will kill your children, or something.
At least, that is the message of the Federal Government ads plastered on the side of every second tram trundling down Swanston Street.
The Government’s approach to internet safety has all the hyperbole and sensationalism of tabloid current affairs programs. This is not surprising. Scare campaigns about the dangers of chatting or stumbling upon nudity usually have little to do with children, and all to do with raising fear in parents. Parents vote.
NetAlert, the initiative that provides those free internet filters that were broken within 30 minutes by a year 10 student, will do little to stop children finding pornography online if they want to. And the mandatory internet filtering that the Government has announced will be expensive and mostly unworkable.
In a further step, last Thursday the Government announced an investigation into sex offenders and pedophiles on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. But the policy options raised by the Government — such as segregating adults and children online, mandatory age verification, or requiring parental approval before signing up to sites — will be as ineffective as NetAlert. Bureaucratic obstacles are no defence against individuals determined to cause harm.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Government’s internet policies are not much more than cynical vote-gathering. In the absence of any other ideas for the upcoming election, the Federal Government is asking voters to think of the children.
But what do the children themselves think about internet safety? The Department of Communications kicked an own goal last week when it released a study of the attitudes of parents and kids. Parents were concerned that the internet exposed children to pornography and was full of strangers and chat rooms. Children were more worried about pop-up ads, viruses and substandard internet speeds. Not surprisingly, few were concerned about pornography. Some expressed concerns about interacting with dangerous strangers.
The study did not provide any support for one of the bulwarks of the Government’s policy — the mandatory internet filter. It revealed instead that internet literacy was a more effective protection against any potential danger online.
Regulating MySpace and filtering the internet provide no substitute for education. Governments can have a role to play in educating about online safety; they set the school curriculum and most children attend public schools. The second way governments can approach child safety is through police work. After all, parents should be outraged not that pedophiles could be on MySpace, but that there are pedophiles at large.
Like any matters to do with children, parents have to take the bulk of the responsibility. The most effective approach to internet safety and obscenity is monitoring online activity. The best protection for children is the setting of boundaries.
Too much of the Federal Government’s internet policy is a distraction from these far more effective approaches.
A few months ago, many commentators assumed that the Federal Government had a rabbit to pull out of the hat before this election. Free internet filters and giving Kieran Perkins the title of “Parent Ambassador” are unfortunately more likely to make the Government look like bunnies.