Internet - Andrew Brown on pre-teen e-mails

My nine-year-old daughter is exchanging passionate e-mails with an eight-year-old boy in the class below her. I know that computers are meant to encourage literacy and homework, but this still feels ridiculous. Rosie has been fooling around on computers since she was two or three. I lent her one of my spare e-mail addresses a couple of years ago, but she never found a use for it except as a way to vary occasionally the monotony of writing thankyou letters. Then she fell in with a charming Finnish boy in the class below. As part of his Finnish patriotism, he is very keen on Linux - at least in theory - because it was begotten by a Finn, Linus Torvalds. It was obvious that the whole thing was serious when she showed me an e-mail from him that said: "You are the first girl I have ever met who has even heard of Linux."

After that, there was no stopping them. Some days, she comes home and they send eight or nine e-mails to each other. These are not, I suppose, very long. Something that takes two minutes to type and ten seconds to read is a perfect atom of communication, like a postcard but without its formality; it does not lead one into the awful abysses of silence that a telephone call does, either. It seems perfectly suited for the inarticulate loves of children; when I was Rosie's age, I was just getting over my passion for the Greek ambassador's daughter in Belgrade. I cannot remember a single word we exchanged (though to this day I remember how beautiful her hair looked and even her name, so it must have been love).

Of course, in those days we didn't have websites. I am not sure whether children should even have them today: there seems to be a horrible exhibitionism about them. Originally we were going to put my daughter's in a password-protected subdivision of mine, so that only people she invited in could ever find it. I don't care how innocent or weird it is, I just don't like the idea of her productions being visible to the whole world. She loves it, of course. But in the end she just cobbled something together because her friend had done so, and now there is a quiet but serious competition. His has links to great Finnish racing drivers. Hers has stories about animals, and a little animation of a "Dogz" that took her an hour to get right.

It is important that none of this has any practical utility. By the time children need to earn their living, the ability to sketch a web page will be as outmoded as the skills we needed to write letters ten years ago; and it is quite likely that they will not even need to type or push a mouse around. It is all pure play and, I suppose, some kind of sentimental education.

In fact, if anything breaks the intensity of the children's online romance, it will be the rival attraction of "Petz" fan sites. Boys, after all, though they may do their best to pretend, are never truly interested in the really important things such as furry animals, but on the fan sites there are tens of thousands of little girls prepared to talk about that awful gut-wrenching loss when a disk crash took away some beloved creature. Then they can write poems about it all.

There is one thing that this correspondence does not do, and that is to withdraw either my daughter or her friend from the world around them, nor does it act as a substitute for real life - whatever that may be. I suppose you might say that it is a substitute for reading books; but if it does anything to their social skills, it develops them, and gives the children more to talk about.

Every so often, there are media stories to suggest that the Internet isolates people and cuts them off from each other: they are all nonsense. I think the false belief arises partly because computers can be such a huge solace for disappointed adults who find in their screens the order and success that life has denied them. And it is true that you can get little circles of self-deluding losers on the web as easily as you can find them in bars; but in both cases they bring their failure with them to the party. The seeds of such things may be sown in childhood but not, I think, by sending e-mails.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor