Postcard from a Challenger Kid

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

We all developed some odd hobbies during that first surreal lockdown. Here was mine.

On rainy days, I found myself watching YouTube channels which archive live coverage of seismic breaking news events, as they happened and as they were broadcast live on air, without any editing or commentary. Assassinations, space shuttle disasters, election nights, inauguration days, car crashes in Paris, plane crashes in New York: that sort of thing.

Far from being a morbid avocation, you’ll find these videos fascinating. When we look back at historical events, we see them as constrained incidents which had a start time and an end time, and we know every fact that happened in the middle. These videos are those events becoming history, raw and unfiltered, in real time, with none of the facts known and their endings nowhere in sight. It’s why these videos are so vital and also educational. You may know everything that happened on a dark day, but until you experience it in real time, you might not truly understand it.

This channel, for example, is quite the rabbit hole. And this one is a strange form of therapy for those of us who were there on that day, close enough to be in danger but nowhere near a TV to tell us so.

Despite having been there on 9/11, I’m somehow able to watch that day’s footage as a detached observer. (Detachment was a good skill to deploy that day.)

But the one event I’m not able to detach myself from and watch passively is the one in the header photo of this post. I was a Challenger Kid. I watched that one live in the school classroom. It still rips my guts out today, 35 years later. If you were a Challenger Kid too, you know exactly what I mean.

I think that’s why something that happened during the course of an afternoon’s playlist viewing, during that first lockdown, shocked me so much. What shocked me wasn’t the content on any video.

It was that the playlist stopped, during what should have been the seamless join between two immediately adjacent archival live broadcast videos, to advise me that the video was age gated and would require age verification.

Because it was archival live footage of bad stuff happening that could upset kids, and these are the rules now, I guess. We’ve got to protect children from being upset by things on the internet. The law says so. The experts say so.

The thing is, nobody in that footage, living through any of those events, got to be a kid on any one of those days. None of them got to choose not to see what was in front of them. None of them were exempted from being a part of the world around them. None of them got to opt-out from the life lessons those events taught them, for good or for bad.

I didn’t. The two events I lived through and witnessed in real time and in real life –  one as a kid watching on TV, one as a young woman panicking in my office – made me who I am. In their ways, the two events each made me a better human. I would not trade that for anything. I can’t. And I wouldn’t.

So it deeply saddens me that children are being denied that opportunity to experience and to learn and to question and to reflect, because these playlists hurt.

Those videos are there because they hurt. They’re there to hurt. That’s their job.

They are not there to caustically offend or cynically exploit or maliciously harm, nor should they be treated as if they were.

These videos bear witness, and if we don’t watch them, what was the point?

If we don’t let children live through those moments, the way I did, and discuss those events in a way that helps them become better people, the way I got to do, then what is it we’re really “protecting” them from?

I might know, actually. See that header photo at the top? Being a Challenger Kid means being difficult and speaking truth to power and questioning authority and never apologising for any of it. That’s what it taught me. That’s what Dick, Mike, El, Ron, Judy, Greg, and Christa taught me.

No wonder someone keeps flagging those videos as being ‘age inappropriate’.

Those videos, curated by amateurs on YouTube who have no ulterior motive, show the world as it changed in real time, as experienced by those who were there, and as experienced by people who didn’t always make it through those days.

To age-gate those videos, for any reason, is an insult to every one of those people.

And to the children that age-gating would claim to protect.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.Ronald Reagan, televised address on the evening of the disaster

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.