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Minister Fitzgerald's Keynote address at Family Online Safety Institute European Forum 2013

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Google EU Headquarters, Barrow Street, D4

Wednesday 15th May 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A friend sent me a cartoon the other day. A cartoon that had appeared recently in the New Yorker.

It shows a young couple, sitting on a couch, watching their toddler. She’s up at the window, her tiny fingers on the glass – like this ## - and her mother is saying to her father “She thinks it’s a touch screen.”

I laughed when I saw it. But it summed up the new reality. The reality of where our children are at, these days.

They have access to the virtual world. More access to that virtual world than many of them have to the non-virtual world.

Inevitably, that creates fears.

New methods of communication always have.

Remember, when print was developed, it was regarded as highly dangerous  because it would do away with the need to pay attention. None of us would bother to remember anything if it could be found in a book. Books were dangerous and had to be controlled. (Good luck with that.)

Books, in the early days, were even chained to prevent their escape – you can still see book chains in Dublin’s wonderful Marsh’s Library, if any of you get a chance to go see one of the gems of our capital city.

None of it worked. Nor did censorship of the kind Ireland had – within living memory – to prevent us being polluted and corrupted by bad books. It used to be said that the one way to make a bestseller out of a new novel was to have it banned – then you knew there was good stuff in it...

Chains and censorship were not the way to go with books – and we need to think long and hard before we try to apply the same approach to the online world.

It is making an even bigger difference to children today as did the arrival of print to adults, centuries ago.

A bigger difference because illiteracy acted as an unplanned control on the impact of print – only the educated could access what was in the relatively few books available, whereas many of our children are more computer-literate than their parents.

A bigger difference because online information comes to us in real time, in many cases unmediated, whereas until recently, parents visited the local library and heavily influenced what books their children selected and read. Not only did they influence the selection of the book, but they also talked to their children and influenced how the book was understood. (That does, of course, still happen with books – but that conversation around information incoming online is too often a parental aspiration rather than a daily reality, for understandable reasons.)

The internet makes a bigger difference than print did because – some observers claim – reading online is changing, not just our habits or our attention span, but perhaps the very hard-wiring of our brains.

But perhaps the biggest difference of all goes back to Mark Twain’s famous comment that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. In online terms, a lie can go ten times around the world and be re-tweeted millions of times before the truth can even find its boots, never mind get them on.

Small wonder that all this creates anxiety, particularly around the protection of children. It’s a right-and-proper anxiety at many levels.

For example, it is important, not just that we protect our children from pornography and violence in the online world, but that we control its capacity to torture, degrade and terrify. Bullying has been with us since children first interacted with each other, but the kind of all-pervasive, all-invasive, night, noon and morning bullying possible within the online world is new and frightening.

But we must also address the changes spending a long time online can make to the way younger people think, read and react.

Books, remember, turned out to be extremely dangerous, in that they could transmit hate. They could also transmit the knowledge of how to act on that hate.
But books had reflection and time built into them.

Time to think.
Time to think again.
Time to move from dangerous certainty to safer doubt...

The online world doesn’t have time for reflection built in, and that is a profound change.

It’s a change with implications for us all, but particularly for people at an age in their lives when impulsivity is high, when vulnerability is high, when emotional volatility is high.

Today is about advancing the privacy and data protection debate in Ireland and Europe. But I’m delighted to see that it’s about much more than that. It’s about the positive. About finding ways to promote a culture of responsibility online and encourage as sense of digital citizenship.

Several decades ago, Neil Postman wrote about what he called The Death of Childhood. What he meant was that popular culture, led by television, was reducing the imaginative autonomy of childhood. The capacity to dream dreams and imagine wonders. To play with simple toys like a skipping rope or a set of skates. To notice the world around them.

Postman’s fears were relevant back then and they’re so much more relevant today.

TV brought wonderful extra possibilities into the lives of children worldwide, just as touch screens and smart phones bring wonderful extra possibilities into the lives of children today.

It’s simple.

We’ve got to control the worst and promote the best.
(You will note that I said it was simple. Not that it was easy!)
You know, the funny thing about the cartoon of the little girl with her fingers on the window is that the more I looked at it, the more it made me think.

Nothing wrong with the little girl wanting to make the picture bigger – to see the flowers outside in detail.

Nothing wrong with so many children doing the same to the TV in their home – fingers do what dials and buttons used to do.

It’s a wonderful thing, that a child should feel so casually powerful.
And it’s up to us to ensure she – and her generation – get to make the best of the wonders available to them.

I have no doubt that today will make substantial contributions towards that, and I wish you an interruption-free day for your important discussions.

Thank you.