Last week the Sunday Times reported that a digital platform called Yubo — widely known as the “Tinder for teens” — is a hotbed of sexual harassment, racism and bullying. Colour me surprised.
It only seems inevitable that with time, all unmoderated (or minimally moderated) parts of the internet will become hotbeds of sexual harassment, racism and bullying. And when your platform is deliberately aimed at 13 to 17 year olds, deliberately connects users with strangers, and then encourages them to chat, swap photos and join livestreams with other kids, it doesn’t matter how many pronoun options there are (Yubo offers fifty) or how much Black History Month education is made available. There is going to be mayhem, much of it unsavoury.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Yubo has 50 million users worldwide and 3.6 million in the UK. Now that the adults have wised up about what really happens on Yubo some UK schools are trying to discourage their students from downloading it, but this will prove a challenge given how little parental supervision there is of teenagers’ online behaviour.
And yet, this is perhaps the most peculiar feature of the digital native generation: in some ways they are probably the most physically cosseted in human history. Compared with previous generations, they are given less freedom to play outside, are less likely to be permitted to walk to and from school alone and are increasingly likely to be banned from climbing trees or playing conkers by parents frightened of accidents. They’re steered clear of the street for fear of strangers but end up talking to strangers online.
Indeed, half of ten-year-olds in the UK now own a smartphone, offering a wondrous portal into most of the world’s knowledge, yes, but also offering access to most of the world’s horrors, from Isis beheading videos to child sexual abuse images. And all via a private device that can be carried around in a child’s pocket.
Some adults are dismissive of these concerns. Michael Rosen, for instance, wrote last year in the Guardian that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who was calling at the time for schools to ban mobile phones, was “like someone in the 16th century despising teenagers for reading a ballad sold on the street because — heaven forbid — it had been produced on a printing press”.
Except that I’m not worried about kids reading the Tyndale Bible, or sharing bawdy caricatures in a more efficient manner. The internet is not just an extension of printing culture, it is a different medium entirely.
Perhaps you have to grow up on the internet to realise that. My suspicion is that when digital natives have children of their own they will be far less squeamish than their parents were about enforcing digital discipline. It will become much more common for teenagers to be banned from owning personal devices, and for parents to dictate strict rules about online behaviour. After all, anyone who knows anything about how teenagers interact with the internet could have told you that “Tinder for teens” would be a disaster.