A short article on page 4 of Thursday’s Times sent me scurrying to find out the truth behind the words. The article claimed that tens of thousands of parents have blocked their children’s access to suicide and self-harm websites on home computers, using TalkTalk’s relatively new HomeSafe service, which requires all new users to set controls and limits (from zero to a wide range) as part of the set-up process; although you still have to choose HomeSafe in the first place, this ISP is at least ahead of the other ISPs in providing a service which doesn’t involve the installation of filter software – it is to some extent more opt-in than opt-out. These figures provided an encouraging start, but the article then went on to say that ‘Fewer than 25 per cent of parents who signed up to the service blocked pornographic sites or sites about drugs, tobacco and alcohol’. This sounded perplexing, and so I went on the trail of more information.
After searching for a while online for a press release, and drawing a blank, I had a very nice conversation with Alex in the TalkTalk press office, who shared with me that although they hadn’t yet officially released any figures, it was becoming clear that more customers were opting to block websites that encouraged suicide or self-harm, including pro-anorexia websites, than were blocking other potentially harmful sites such as those promoting porn, or dealing with smoking, tobacco and alcohol. The percentages weren’t vastly different, in fact, and of course there are many imponderables in there too – do they distinguish between websites discouraging smoking and those advocating the use of cannabis, for example? Moreover, it was actually impossible to tell whether these customers were parents or not, which somewhat skews the figures in the article.
However, the bottom line is that of all TalkTalk’s new customers in the past 2 months, around 75% of them have thought that unfiltered access to the internet is – by default – a good thing, and it is a fair bet that a proportion of these are parents. We need no other proof of the intense potential dangers of the online world, of the disconnect that can happen between reality and fantasy, with fatal consequences, than the case of Joshua Davies, who has just been convicted for murdering his girlfriend. One of the most chilling aspects was the testimony of his friend, who apparently encouraged him in text messages and yet didn’t think Davies’ explicit fantasies were real – ‘I thought he was only joking’. Well, he wasn’t, and a precious life was lost as a result.
The point here is not that all unfiltered access leads to murder; the point is that we have not yet become savvy enough as a society to recognise the dangers of unfettered exposure to potentially harmful ways of thinking. We are too naive … and if we are, then so certainly are our children, and we should protect them.