When I was asked by the Prime Minister to carry out an independent review of the risks children face from the internet and video games, I realised two things.
First, how integral these new technologies have become to the lives of young people and second, how important it is that we educate ourselves about the benefits and dangers they bring.
As a clinical pyschologist specialising in child and adolescent mental health – and as the mother of two children – I wanted to understand how and why young people use the internet and video games.
Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.
These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.
It quickly became apparent that there was a big difference between what concerned parents understand and what their technologically savvy children know. The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide. Put bluntly, the world of video games has come a long way since the early days of Pac Man. And while change and innovation are undoubtedly exciting, they can also be challenging or just plain scary.
But panic or no panic, the virtual world and the real world do contain risks, and children left to navigate a solo path through either, face many dangers.
The trouble is that although as adults we instinctively know how to protect our children offline, we often assume that their greater technological expertise will ensure they can look after themselves online. But knowledge is not the same as wisdom.
This review is about the needs of children and young people. It is about preserving their right to take the risks that form an inherent part of their development by enabling them to play video games and surf the net in a safe and informed way.
By listening to children and young people and putting them at the heart of this review – and by replacing emotion with evidence – I hope I have provided some very necessary focus to what is a very necessary debate.