Review by Cath Murray

7 May 2017, 5:00


Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood

By Sandra Leaton Gray and Andy Phippen

There’s something incoherent about how this book is presented that I’m struggling to articulate.

Perhaps it’s that its cover photo of a 16th-century “child-eater” statue makes it looks like a guidebook to the Swiss city of Berne. It could be the pathos-laden title: Invisibly Blighted, or the subtitle’s apocalyptic tones: The digital erosion of childhood. Whatever it is, it has the authors swimming against the tide from the start.

It’s a credit to them, therefore, that they manage to engage. I expected another tome on how technology is destroying kids’ lives. Instead I read a concise overview of the state of safeguarding legislation and practice, interspersed with the wisest musings of teenagers, digested and fed back to me as eruditely formulated theses (a product of the authors’ work in schools).

It’s an academic text so kicks off with a dull but presumably necessary chapter on definitions. We then dive into a meatier discussion, with a provocative edge, introducing ideas such as “moral panic” (roughly put, an increased awareness of, rather than an actual increase in risk).

As someone who raised a family in settings where natural disasters and lack of hospitals were real concerns, I breathed a sigh of relief at the authors’ description of the UK as a “particularly extreme case study of collective parental anxiety regarding risk”. They raise a theme that is developed later: that those in positions of authority should be careful not to overstate risk to gain a “tactical advantage”.

The authors’ insistence on framing the issues as “social” is the book’s most interesting theme

A chapter on identity and biometrics asks schools whether they are guilty of “convenience at the cost of privacy”. (Were pupils informed of their rights when they uploaded their fingerprint to the school database? Are schools adequately safeguarding this personal biometric data?) In characteristically measured tones, the authors write: “The matter of how school administrators become complicit in widespread, digitised child surveillance — not always compliant with the law — merits examination.”

Chapter four develops this idea, lamenting a lack of education on social issues and warning of “a serious risk the next generation of our society develops in a way that makes them think they have no right to privacy”.

The authors’ insistence on framing the issues as “social” is the book’s most interesting theme.

Schools are overly reliant on technology (filters or monitoring software) to address social problems, they argue.

But not only will young people find a way around the barriers adults put in place to restrict their access to information, they will also disseminate the work-arounds to their peers (described in this exquisitely academic phrase: “situated cognition in action in a collective sense”). Young people need to be educated and empowered, not simply restricted.

We are alerted to gaps in legislation that could allow third parties to use data from schools for commercial purposes, if a school has not “paid sufficient due diligence to where it is stored” (EU law doesn’t cover data stored in the US).

By using scare tactics, we are pushing teen sexting underground, it claims

The chapter on sexting is eye-opening. It points out the gross disparity between how adults are treated under the law (“revenge porn” legislation, which criminalises the third party sharing intimate images of the “victim”) and how minors are treated in the same scenario (children can be prosecuted for sharing indecent images of themselves).

By using scare tactics, we are pushing teen sexting underground, it claims, and reducing the likelihood children will seek help from adults when needed.

The book ends with an eminently sensible manifesto, containing gems such as “to place all the of the curriculum attention on technology is as bizarre as placing a topic such as drugs awareness in the chemistry class”.

There is much more in this book. So read it. I recommend it for school leaders, safeguarding officers, parents, teacher book clubs.

And to the publisher: how about a lay person’s version? It would do the young people of this country a great service.

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