Something must be done – I

Red flag, via wikipediaIt is human nature to fear the new. And for many of us, the internet is still new. I have pointed out before that Lilian Edwards observes (in “The internet and security: do we need a man with a red flag walking in front of every computer?” (2007) 4 (1) SCRIPT-ed 1 (March 2007)), rather like those who feared cars so much that early models had to be preceded by a man walking ahead with a red flag to warn people of the approach of the new-fangled invention, there are now those who would red-flag everything about the internet. Sometimes, these fears are well-founded; on other occasions, they are exaggerated and misplaced. But the usual response – and in particular, the usual political response – is to do something to soothe those fears, whether or not well-founded. The cry goes up: “Something must be done”; and something is indeed done, whether it is necessary or not. This is particularly so when the cry that goes up is “Won’t someone please think of the children?“; hence, when the something is being done, it is often justified as being done in the best interests of children, again whether it is necessary or not. Unless we are careful, we may end up raising too many red-flags around the internet.

Byron Review logo, via their website.These musings are prompted by the news that, in response to the Byron Review Safer Children in a Digital World (website | blog reaction here and here | news reaction here and here | see, in particular, BBC news and reaction here, here, here, here, and here), the UK Government has said that it will establish a Council for Child Internet Safety and start to apply to computer games the age restrictions used to classify films.* OUT-Law is reporting that

Education minister Ed Balls said that the Government was “fully committed to implementing the report’s recommendations,” and that it would immediately begin establishing the recommended UK Council for Child Safety.

Indeed, a press release on the Department’s website goes further, immediately trumpeting the government’s commitment to implementing all of Byron’s recommendations:


Ed Balls and Andy Burnham [Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport] today welcomed the Byron Review of the risks to children of potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games. Accepting all Dr Byron’s recommendations, they pledged to act immediately on taking forward her proposals. … Ed Balls … said:

“Our aim is to make this the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up. In our Children’s Plan consultations parents have told us the internet is an issue which really worries them and they want help in balancing the risks and the opportunities.

In the aftermath of the recent announcement of the release of the violent video game Manhunt II (more here and here) in the UK, there were calls for more government oversight of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), and now the Byron Review does indeed suggest reforming the classification system for rating video games with one set of symbols on the front of all boxes which are the same as those for film, in particular to ease the understanding of parents. But it is the recommendation of a new Council for Child Internet Safety that is grabbing much of the media attention, though the Review also recommends an immediate comprehensive public information and awareness campaign on child internet safety, and places of all its recommendations in the context of education of children, outreach to parents, co-operation with children’s charities, and involvement of the industry.

We probably didn’t need another report (though the forthcoming Institute for Public Policy Research paper Behind the Screen: The hidden life of youth online by Kay Withers with Ruth Sheldon (press release | report) is excellent) to tell us that many children are indeed being raised in front of a computer screen, so the Byron recommendations constitute an important and welcome development, but it should not be allowed to become a giant red flag between children and their computers.

* There have also been recent similar Irish developments, and they will be the subject of a post tomorrow, as including them in this one would have made it far too long!