Prior to video and the internet, the worst material parents had to worry about their children getting hold of was a Playboy Magazine. For the parents of today’s children it is everything from bestiality to child porn and whatever is in-between. The internet has brought us every fetish under the sun, with parents and educational institutions charged with the responsiblity of controlling access to material from an ever-increasing array of technologies.
Today’s parents have to balance a respect for freedom of expression with a responsibility for the morality of their children in a time of rapid technological and social change. Change brings uncertainty and the increasing flux of technologically driven change brings to parents never before seen challenges.
The debate over the government’s mandatory internet filter brings us face to face with the reality of the loss of parental control over the kind of material to which children have access. How many parents today can say that they are able to choose what their children have access to; given that in many houses it is the children who set up internet access for parents and not the other way around?
Moral education which underlies and guides behaviour is seen as the parental responsibility. Yet how realistic is it to put that responsibility entirely on parents in a milieu where shock humour is the new standard, where boundaries of taste and morality are breached to feed a constant titillation and where children are more technologically literate than their parents?
In a constantly changing world how do we teach our children there are boundaries? When does titillation become objectification and objectification become deviance? Authors such as Clive Hamilton and Naomi Klein point out that consumerism is basically a culture in itself now: our children grow up completely submerged in the media with no boundaries between advertising and editorial, between information and indoctrination. “Hegemony … lies with the marketers and the culture makers in the media. For them, pushing the boundaries is now a marketing technique.” (Clive Hamilton in The Monthly, August 2008).
From the crèche to the grave our children are being sold movie plo.ts with their McDinners, product placement with their news and movies and “reality” media which promotes in every child the idea that they too can raise themselves from obscurity to media-mainstream if they do something stupid or offensive enough to become a YouTube hit. Rather than learning boundaries and judgment this new world is teaching our children that boundaries are bad, commonsense is passé and the weird and wacky is the highest form of entertainment.
Pity the parents and teachers who have to compete with this 24/7 stream-of-anti-consciousness and try to teach their children that consumerism is not a value, celebrity is not a role model and the media advertorial is not the fourth estate. Surrounded by this moral nihilism it becomes more and more difficult for parents to cultivate and maintain a sense of authority when the validity of boundaries is constantly undermined, not only by popular culture but by the fashionably intellectual as well.
According to Simon Hackett, managing director of Telecommunications company Internode, in an interview for ZDNet (October 3, 2008) on Labor’s mandatory internet filter: “The problem is we live in a world with multiple sets of morality, all of them equally valid.”
Are these ideas symptomatic of the solution or the problem? As parents we can not simply sit on the fence. If multiple sets of morality are equally valid then where do parents find the defence for those they choose to preference? In this epoch of moral relativism, many parents struggle with how to justify a sense of values when faced with the cultural elite’s discourse on the evils of privileging one value system over another.
Set adrift in a sea of anomie and drowned out by marketing phantasmagoria it is easy for parents to be worn into submission and question the legitimacy of their values and the imposition of these on their children.
One does not have to be a dysfunctional family to have difficulty controlling their young person’s access to material on the internet. As the anti-filter protesters state at every turn, existing computer filters can be by-passed by the determined teen. Apart from the contemporary distaste for promoting norms for sexual behaviour, the rapid development of technology which constantly outstrips most efforts to manage it, underlines the impracticality of the cries from the IT crowd that parents alone should bear the burden of responsibility.
The technology loving 20 and 30 somethings who blithely claim it is up to the parents and schools to “take responsibility” for the values and actions of our children, have probably never had to figure out how to convince a healthy teenager why she should not starve herself, nor convince a teenage boy that his sexual objectification of women may mean that his future loves will never feel attractive; no matter how much he adores them.
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