How to create a world as age appropriate as apple pie

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

One of the many problems I have with the UK government’s determination to build an “age appropriate” internet that will be the “safest place in the world to be online” is that this goal is entirely subjective and inachievable. It attempts to create internet regulation through undefined emotive rhetoric.

A tweet conversation this morning has spurred me to pour a cup of tea and share this story about what happens when “age appropriate” is allowed to become a subjective and politicised decision, nodded through by authority, about how information should be delivered – and filtered – to the young people who need it the most.

Through no choice or fault of my own, I – a cosmopolitan European ‘citizen of nowhere’ – had the misfortune to spend my teenage high school years stuck in the literal middle of nowhere, in a small town in rural America. We’re talking gun racks in pickup trucks America. In a school full of cowboy boots and country music, I looked and sounded like this (turn it up and smash something). I graduated, loaded up my shitty secondhand car and screeched out of there as fast as I could, and never looked nor went back.

Like all teenagers, I had to take a biology class around the ages of 13-14. This, at a comically late age, meant “learning where babies come from.” We had to lug around backbreaking textbooks about plants and biomes and, yes, human reproduction.

At this point we learned that there were two sets of biology textbooks for two sets of kids. One set, which included me, included information on where babies come from and how they get there, inclusive of illustrations of (giggle, snort) the naked human body and the organs (heh heh heh) which make such sorcery possible.

The other set of biology textbooks, which was available on request to evangelical parents, did not include any information on where babies come from, or illustrations of vile filth such as the human body. For verily, these fragile lambs of Jesus could not be made to confront something so age inappropriate as penises and vaginas, or the notion that babies come from anywhere other than, I don’t know, Wal-mart. So the school system deemed it age appropriate for that entire chunk of the curriculum, as well as the rather essential knowledge contained within it, to remain an unspeakable taboo to those kids.

Now the thing about this was: we’d had our first class pregnancy in the final year of elementary (primary) school. To be fair, the girl had been held back (e.g. made to repeat a year, e.g. she had intellectual difficulties if not an outright disability) several times, and so was a bit older than the rest of us. But still, we had to have a “special class assembly” to discuss this awkwardness, at an age where we were still let out for recess.

That incest victim girl, for what it’s worth, was later honoured by the state’s evangelical governor for carrying her baby to term at the age of 13 rather than aborting it. That, to the ruling political establishment, was an “age appropriate” thing to do.

What’s more is that in addition to her, the school had an astronomic teenage pregnancy rate. A lot of those pregnancies were within the school’s substantial cohort of the children of Hispanic migrant workers, who spoke little to no English, weren’t always legal and documented, and therefore were incredibly vulnerable. But their child rapes pregnancies were always written off as just the ways those s***s lived their lives, and never as a kind of age inappropriateness worth spending time on.

Likewise – remember, this is redneck America we’re talking about – the school had a distressingly high teenage marriage rate. I was the yearbook editor, and had to copyedit a lot of bios written by 16 and 17 year old girls which said “I enjoy spending time with my husband”. But girls getting engaged to substantially older men (also known as “predators”) and getting married the week they turned legal wasn’t just “age appropriate” in that community – it was an all-American thing to do.

So we had the almost comically absurd situation where a set of parents had decided that certain information – babies and ova and sperm, oh my – was not age appropriate, despite their fragile flowers being surrounded by bulging bellies and wedding rings, and the school system – as well as the community’s morals – bent over backwards to accommodate that belief.

But it meant something else too.

Decades before social media was invented, and long before the term “filter bubbles” entered the lexicon, those textbooks (and those bellies) proved that if something as vile as the truth about human reproduction makes you uncomfortable, you can call it “age appropriate” to censor young people’s textbooks and shield them from that filth.

So you send young adults into the world with no idea about where babies come from, no knowledge about their own bodies which might prove useful when something inevitably goes wrong with them, no ability to respect their own sexuality or defend their reproductive rights, no ability to feel anything but guilt and shame about their natural processes, no ability to question authority even when it’s in their own interest, and no social conscience or obligations towards others – especially minorities and victims of sexual abuse – for whom pregnancy was neither voluntary nor chosen nor the sweet kiss of Jesus.

And once you let something like that stand as just the way things are done around these here parts, you’ve laid the template for using “age appropriate” morals to create an ignorant and powerless society. Or, as some would call it, a slice of All-American apple pie.

Eighteen months later

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.