Imagining pornographers everywhere

How fears about the internet perverted my toddler's playtime.

Alison Perrett

Topics Science & Tech

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Microsoft has announced that it is closing down all of its chatrooms in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and most of Asia.

This looks like smart marketing, at a time when there is a prevailing fear that parents are incapable of protecting their children from the dangers that the internet poses. But what does it do to our view of children, the internet, and each other?

I have witnessed the extent of present-day fears about the internet first-hand. On a hot day this summer, I passed through the courtyard of Somerset House on the Strand in London, with my two-year-old daughter in tow. The synchronised fountains rising from the pavement were all too inviting for a toddler simply to pass by. So I let my girl strip off, to splash about in the puddles.

Within two or three minutes, a member of staff approached me, and politely but sternly told me to clothe my daughter. When I asked why, he replied, with conviction, that people may be taking photographs of her. I told the young man that I didn’t care if people took photos of my daughter. Looking me straight in the eye, he said: ‘But how would you feel if your child’s photograph were to appear on the wrong internet site?’

He was unapologetic. He believed that I had placed my child in a vulnerable position, and felt that he was performing his civic duty by pointing this out to me.

The image of a happy two-year old running through a fountain is one of youthful innocence, to all but the most twisted minds. Yet fear compelled this young man to view the scene through the eyes of someone with the sinister intention of photographing a naked child, somehow presenting her in a sexual context, and then distributing the image online.

I surveyed the crowd, and saw office workers and tourists sitting about the square. The only people who seemed to have noticed my daughter were a few old ladies, smiling and cooing over her, and they did not possess cameras. Could there have been a child pornographer in our midst, waiting to take a snap of their next subject?

Surely, the chances of a such a person hanging out at Somerset House on a summer’s day are so miniscule as to be almost non-existent. It should not even have to register as a perceivable risk to the responsible parent. But the notion of the responsible parent appears to have changed in recent times.

Clearly, no responsible parent would let their child wander off with a complete stranger. But in the age of the internet, the scapegoat of all evils, it appears that ‘responsible’ parenting now extends to keeping a two-year old clothed on a hot summer’s day, so as not to arouse the demented thoughts of a lurking, web-assisted pervert – however remote the risk.

If this fear of the internet is as commonplace as it seems, then Microsoft’s chatroom closures, irrespective of the company’s true motivations, will occur without extensive public concern. This will be one more nail in the coffin for a truly free and open internet. My fear is that when the time comes for me to guide my child toward the gems on the internet, and away from the detritus, the best thing on offer may be a pay-per-view episode of Big Brother. The internet is on course to becoming a shadow of its former self, due to a collective lack of trust in ourselves and in those around us.

Microsoft is purporting to take the moral initiative, by removing the burden of responsibility from the hands of concerned parents. But its chatroom closures are a sad overreaction to a limited problem, that could be checked by greater parental supervision and awareness of our children’s computer activities.

Alison Perrett is a copyright assistant at the Tate gallery

Read on:

Communication breakdown, by Sandy Starr

We scare because we care, by Sandy Starr

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Topics Science & Tech


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