The negative implications of children’s use of the Internet, particularly their loss of innocence through access to pornography, is a topic frequently addressed in public discussions and debate. These debates often take on a technologically determinist point of view and assume that technology directly influences children, usually in a harmful fashion. But what is really happening in the Australian family home? Are parents fearful of these risks, and if so what are they doing about it? A recent exploration of the everyday Internet lives of Australian families indicates that families manage these perceived risks in a variety of ways and are not overly troubled about this issue. Findings from the research project indicate that Australian parents are more concerned about some children’s excessive use of the Internet than about pornography. They construct the Internet as interfering with time available to carry out homework, chores, getting adequate sleep or participating in outdoor (fresh air) activities. This disparity, between public discourse regarding the protection of children in the online environment and the actual significance of this issue in the everyday lives of Australian families, reflects the domestic dynamics within the “moral economy of the household” (Silverstone et al. 15) whereby family relationships and household practices inform the manner in which technology is consumed within any given household.
The research project described here (Family Internet: Theorising Domestic Internet Consumption, Production and Use Within Australian Families) is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant and investigates Internet use within Australian homes with specific reference to families with school-aged children. It explores how individual family members make sense of their family’s engagement with the Internet and investigates ways in which the Internet is integrated within Australian family life.
The relationship between children and technology is often addressed in public debates regarding children’s health, safety, social and educational development. Within these debates technology is usually held responsible for a variety of harmful consequences to children. These technological ‘effects’ range from the decline of children’s social relationships (with both peers and family); through sedentary lifestyles which impinge on fitness levels and the weight (body mass index) of children; to the corruption of children (and their loss of innocence) through access to unsuitable materials. These unsuitable texts include “soft and hardcore porn, Neo Nazi groups, paedophiles, racial and ethnic hatred” (Valentine et al. 157). Other digital technologies, such as computer and video games, are sometimes seen as exacerbating these problems and raise the spectre of the ‘Nintendo kid’, friendless and withdrawn (Marshall 73), lacking in social skills and unable to relate to others except through multi-player games – although this caricature appears far removed from children’s normal experience of computer gaming (Aisbett: Durkin and Aisbett).
Such debates about the negative implications of the Internet and video games run simultaneously alongside government, educational and commercial promotion of these technologies, and the positioning of digital skills and connectivity as the key to children’s future education and employment. In this pro-technology discourse the family:
…is being constructed as an entry point for the development of new computer-related literacies and social practices in young people … what is discursively produced within the global cultural economy as digital fun and games for young people, is simultaneously constructed as serious business for parents (Nixon 23).
Thus, two conflicting discourses about children’s Internet use exist simultaneously whereby children are considered both “technically competent and at risk from their technical skills” (Valentine et al. 157). This anxiety is further exacerbated by the fear that parents are losing control of their children’s Internet activities because their own (the parents’) technical competencies are being surpassed by their children. Such fear may well be based on misleading information, particularly in the Australian context. The Australian Broadcasting Authority’s 2001 Internet@ home report “challenges the popular belief that parents lag behind their children in their interest and proficiency with online technology. Most often the household Internet ‘expert’ is an adult” (Aisbett 4).
Nonetheless, this public anxiety is underscored by a concern that parents may not be sufficiently Internet-savvy to prevent their children’s access to pornography and other undesirable Internet content. This leads to the fundamental anxiety that parents’ natural power base will be diminished (Valentine et al. 157). In the case of children’s access to Internet porn it may well be that:
although parents still occupy the role of initiated with regard to sexuality, if they are uninitiated technologically then they lose the power base from which to set the markers for progressive socialisation (Evans and Butkus 68).
These popular fears do not take into consideration the context of Internet use in the real world—of children’s and parents’ actual experiences with and uses of the Internet. Parents have developed a variety of ways to manage these perceived risks in the home and are not usually overly concerned about their children’s exposure to unsuitable or inappropriate content on the Internet.
Families’ everyday experiences of Internet consumption
The home Internet is one site where most parents exercise some degree of care and control of their children, supervising both the quantity and quality of their children’s Internet experiences. When supervising their children’s access to particular Internet sites, parents in this study use a variety of strategies and approaches. These approaches range from a child-empowering ‘autonomous’ approach (which recognises children’s autonomy and competencies) to more authoritarian approaches (with the use of more direct supervision in order to restrict and protect children). At the same time children may use the Internet to affirm their autonomy or independence from their parents, as parents in this study affirm:
He used to let me see the [onscreen] conversations but he won’t let me see them now. But that’s fine. If I come up and talk to him, he clicks the button and takes the screen off. (Kathy, pseudonyms used for interviewee contributions)
Parents who tend to favour a child-empowering approach recognise their children’s autonomy, while at the same time having relatively high expectations of their children’s psychosocial competence and ability to handle a variety of media texts in a relatively sophisticated manner. When asked about her son’s access to adult Internet content, single mum Lisa indicated that Henry (17) had openly accessed Internet pornography a few years earlier. She expected (and allowed for) some exploration by her son. At the same time, she was not overly concerned that these materials would corrupt or harm him as she expected these explorations to be a transitory phase in his life:
It doesn’t bother me at all. If he wants to do that then he can do it because he’ll get sick of it and I think initially it was ‘let’s see what we can do’. I remember once, he called me in and says ‘Mum, come and look at her boobs’ and I looked at it and I said ‘it’s disgusting’ or something and walked away and he laughed his head off. But I’ve never come in [lately] and found him looking at that stuff … It’s just not something that I’m … really worried about. It’s up to him (Lisa).
As with this exchange, families often use media texts as tools in the socialisation of children. The provision of shared topics of conversation allows for discussions between generations:
Such materials serve an agenda-setting role … [playing] an important role in providing a socioemotional context for the household within which learning takes place. Technoculture is consequently a critical tool for socialisation … ICTs also construct a framework on/with which to differentiate one member from another, to differentiate between generations, and to differentiate ways in which power and control can be asserted (Green 58).
In this case, Lisa’s comment to her teenage son (‘it’s disgusting’) and her actions (in walking away) doubtlessly provided Henry with a social cue, an alternative attitude to his choice of online content. Further, in initiating this exchange with his mother, Henry is likely to have been making a statement about his own autonomy and transition into (heterosexual) manhood.
In his interview, Henry openly acknowledged his earlier exploration of adult porn sites but (as his mother anticipated) he seems to have moved on from this particular phase. When asked whether he visited adult sites on the Internet Henry responded in his own succinct manner:
Henry: Like porn and stuff? Not really. I probably did when I was a bit younger but it’s not really very exciting.
Interviewer: That was when you first got it [the Internet] or when?
Henry: Yeah, [two to three years earlier] all your friends come around and you check out the sites. It’s nothing exciting anymore.
Sexual experiences and knowledge are an important currency within teenage boy culture (Holland et al. 1998) and like other teenage boys, Henry and his friends are likely to have used this technology in order to “negotiate their masculinity within the heterosexual economy of [their] peer group social relations”(Valentine et al. 160). In this case, it seemed to be a transitory stage within Henry’s peer (or community of interest) group and became less important as the teenagers grew into maturity.
Many children and young people are also exploring the social world of Internet chat, with the potential risk of unwanted (and unsafe) face-to-face contact. Leonie, mother of teenage girls, explained her daughters’ ability to negotiate these potentially unsafe contacts:
I suppose you just get a bit concerned about the chat lines and who they’re talking to sometimes but really they usually tell me … [to 17-year old daughter in the room] Like on the chat lines you, when, had that idiot … that one that was going to come over here. Just some idiots on there. A lot of the kids are teenagers. I know Shani’s  gotten on there a few times on the chat line and there’s been obviously someone asking them lewd questions and she’s usually blocked them and cut them off …(Leonie).
Daughter Shani also discusses her experiences with unsafe (unwanted) Internet contact: “They go on about stuff that you don’t really want to talk about and it’s just ‘No, I don’t think so’” (Shani, 14). Shani went on to explain that she now prefers to use instant messaging with known (offline) friends—a preference now taken up by many teenagers (Holloway and Green: Livingstone and Bober).
Electronic media play an important role in children’s transition to adulthood. The ubiquitousness of the World Wide Web, however, makes restriction and protection of children increasingly difficult to realise (Buckingham 84-5). Instead, many parents in this study are placing more importance on openness, consultation and discussion with their children about the media texts they encounter, rather than imposing restriction and regulation which these parents believe may well be “counter-productive” (Nightingale et al. 19).
Of greater disquiet to many parents in this study than their children’s access to unsuitable online content is concern about their children’s possible excessive use of the Internet. Parents were typically more concerned about the amount of time some of their children were spending chatting to friends and playing online games. One mother explains:
They [my daughters] started to use MSN whilst they were doing school work and obviously kids are able to listen to music, watch television, do a project. They can multi-task without all the confusion that I [would have] but we actually now, they’re not able to do MSN during the school week at all … so we now said to them, “if you want to ring somebody, give them a call, that’s fine, we don’t mind, but during the week no MSN” … we’ve actually restricted them (Stephanie).
Parental concern about children’s excessive use of the Internet was most marked for parents of teenage children: adolescence being a time when “rules about media consumption can be an early site of resistance for young adults keen to take more power for themselves and their own lives” (Green 30). Father of two, Xavier, expressed his concern about (what he perceived as) his teenage son’s excessive use of the Internet:
Well I think there’s far too much time … Gavin’ll spend a whole day on it. I try to get him to come to the footy on Sunday. No. He’s available for friends [for online gaming and chat on the Internet]. He’ll spend all day on the computer (Xavier).
Son Gavin (16), in a separate interview, anticipated that this criticism had been made and felt compelled to counter it:
Well he [dad] makes comments like saying I’m not fit enough ‘cause I spent too much time on the computer but I play soccer a lot. Like, I do sport perhaps everyday at school … I mean, I think, such a piece of crap (Gavin).
Thus, the incorporation of the Internet into the domestic sphere often sees previously established boundaries (who uses what, when, where and for how long) redefined, challenged, resisted and defended by various family members. In this way the Internet (and other new media) helps shape (and is shaped by) the temporal and spatial boundaries within the home.
While all parents in the Family Internet study construct the Internet as a site which requires some level of care and control over their children’s online use, they use a variety of approaches when carrying out this supervisory role. Some parents tend to allow for children’s free exploration of the Internet and are relatively confident that their children are able to negotiate adult texts such as pornography in a comparatively sophisticated manner. Other parents, those inclined to protect their children from the dangers of adult content and unsafe Internet contact, choose to monitor and restrict their children’s access to the Internet to varying degrees. More consistent is parental concern about excessive use of the Internet, and the assumption that this displaces constructive use of children’s time.
Public anxieties about children’s use of the Internet make assumptions about children’s media practices. Children (and their families) are often assumed to be less able to differentiate between suitable and unsuitable Internet texts and to deal with these potential dangers in a sensible manner. These fears presuppose a variety of negative impacts on children’s and young peoples’ lives which may have little to do with daily reality. Our exploration of families’ everyday experiences of Internet consumption highlights the disparity between public anxieties about Internet use and the importance of these anxieties in the everyday lives of families. The major concern of families – ill-disciplined and excessive Internet use – barely registers on the same scale as the public moral panic over children’s possible access to online pornography. These findings say less about the Internet as a locale in cyberspace than they do about the domestic dynamics of the household, parenting styles, relationships between parent(s) and children, and the sociocultural context of family life.