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Sage Advice on Kids from One with None

Thursday, 10th May, 2001

E-mail forwards I'm used to, but this was a strange one.

I read it and I thought about it, which distinguishes it immediately from most supposedly useful forwards, but in the end dismissed it along with the rest. It certainly stuck in the mind though, which suggests that it worked, regardless of whether or not I forwarded it on further.

Most of the ones I've received are patently stupid. Forward this to your friends and Microsoft will give you $1000. Forward this to your friends and a cute little rabbit will jump up and down on your screen. Forward this to your friends or you'll have a hundred years of bad luck.

Patently stupid I can delete. Instantly. Often the people who send them should know better, often the only thing that they are guilty of is not checking up on the things first. Some of the mails are not so obviously stupid as others, warning of some new virus or other, or tapping into a subconscious fear.

This one concerned putting children and paedophiles; and putting the children in the public eye, especially on the internet. Black and white subject, you think? Maybe not.

That I should disagree with most of a mail warning of the evils of paedophiles got me thinking. It's a subject not to be taken lightly, though almost the entire world would share an identical view on the matter. Paedophilia is rightly illegal, and is seen by the world at large, including myself, as sick, twisted behaviour, even by hardened criminals. If you put into prison someone who interferes with kids, they will not last long, which many would say is just desserts.

Disagreement felt strange. It was as if I was breaking some sort of taboo, and I could see the author berating me for it. It's such a black and white issue that dissent on any level is frowned on, even if you're actually a law-abiding citizen who thinks paedophilia should be stamped out. I replied to the person who had sent it to me, with a number of points that further thought has only increased. I hope I don't lose a friend.

It read like this. Half of the mail suggested that photos of children should never be posted online, even in those sections of your own web site devoted to your family, because paedophiles can take the pictures and either manipulate them or use them for sick purposes. The other half talked about colouring competitions and the evils thereof.

Let's think for a moment. If you run a site that contains a section about your family, it's because you're proud of them and want to show them off to the world. Genetically, they're an extension of you and your spouse, and thus in some way every achievement is your achievement. Why hide them away?

The argument would suggest that paedophiles plough through the search engines looking for sites like yours. They find the pictures of your kids and copy them, manipulate them, upload them to secret areas of the web, from where they become freely available to any sick pervert who wants to use them for their own purposes.

But why? Excuse me for making you roleplay, but imagine you're a paedophile. Would you be remotely interested in some random picture of a child just because it's a child? Would you get your rocks off if they weren't naked? Do they just have to be cute? Cuddly? Your imagination does the rest?

I think it's a safe assumption that the kids posted on their parents' websites are fully clothed and would pose no interest to the perverts out there.

So what if they modify the pictures? What if they throw the image into PhotoShop and transplant the head of your beloved child onto some already available naked image? If this happened to my kids, I'd be upset too, but I doubt that this happens at all, and if it does, the image could have been acquired from anywhere.

After all we live in a culture that decreases privacy further as every day goes by. So you don't post pictures of your beloved child online? Are you going to keep them out of the newspaper too if they win a national competition, or save someone's life, or visit the Queen? Are you going to insist that their picture not be included in the school's yearbook?

Don't forget that the UK now has more security cameras than any other country in the world. We are the most watched people anywhere. Big Brother is up there watching you and he watches with astute eyes.

So after all, whether you post to your site or not, images of your kids are going to be available somewhere. If not, what's to stop someone driving past your house and snapping with their digital camera?

I would suggest that children are far more at risk in other ways than these, which are so negligible as to be nonexistent. I think it's far more important to be aware of what your teenage children do online and where they go; to know where they are at all times and when they'll be back; to teach them right and wrong and how to minimise risk; in short, to help them to be able to deal with problems that will arise in life rather than to hide from them.

On to the colouring competitions, for which I'm on dubious ground as I don't know how they are run in the States. We have them here too, though, and you'll have seen the results often. Your kid enters a competition and if he or she wins their picture will be put on a wall somewhere in public. All fine and dandy, but do you realise that also attached is their name, age, address, phone number?

Well no, I don't, because in this country there would be a first name and age only; with a town added if it was a national competition. 'John, 13, Bradford' does not constitute enough information for a paedophile to track down a child. With as many children in the world as they are, they'd find one round every corner if they required.

Once again, logic dictates that good parents will keep their children safe by knowing where they are, knowing that they won't talk to strangers, knowing that they'll be home before dark. Colouring competitions won't affect that in the slightest.

I don't have statistics or graphs to hand, but I'd bet that paranoia has grown consistently faster than good parenting. Look after your children and keep them safe, by all means, but let them live too. Make sure they have the common sense and intelligence to survive in a world that has plenty of evil in it.

Of course, if you sent round such a mail, every good parent would feel guilty, because regardless of how much they do, they always think they could do more; and every bad parent wouldn't notice.

After ranting on like this, I can hear your unspoken question. No, I've never made a mistake with my kids at all, for the simple reason I don't have any. This is the only way in which I can talk about parenting, because once I become a parent I'll have a string of mistakes to call my own. Every parent does. The job at hand is to learn from them.

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