Imagine that parents could shield children from everything that might disturb or scare them. Sure, right now, they can put parental blocks on the TV and the computer, limit access to the internet, and make sure they only watch PG movies. But, as much as some parents might wish, it will always be impossible to completely shelter kids from seeing troubling images or events in the real world... or will it? The episode "Arkangel" in Season 4 of Black Mirror asks viewers to imagine a world in which parental controls can be placed not only on internet content, but on everything a child sees. This well-intentioned but ultimately frightening vision of the future emphasizes the tremendous impact that technology has on the development of kids, whether attempts to shelter them from it are successful or not, and begs the question: how does parental censorship, or lack of it, affect kids?
The episode, directed by actor Jodie Foster, centers on the relationship between a mother (Rosemarie Dewitt) and her daughter, Sara. After briefly losing 3-year-old Sara at a park, the mother decides to enroll her daughter in a free trial of a new program, Arkangel. The program allows Sara's mother not only to track her location, but to view the world through her eyes, and implement a parental screening that blurs out anything that Sara sees that might disturb her.
On the face of it, this seems like a harmless enough idea. After all, who wouldn't want to protect their children from frightening things? Parents already actively seek to shelter their children from the wealth of inappropriate content that is often merely a click away. Though no similar technology has yet been developed to shield kids from things they might see in the real world, parental controls on internet content and television are micro versions of Arkangel, blocking access to images, videos, and experiences that might be dangerous or disturbing to children.
Yet as "Arkangel" reveals, censoring children completely from the realities of the world, however disturbing those realities might be, is often impossible, especially in an internet age. When Sara begins going to school, she encounters Trick, a boy who has seen everything that Arkangel blurs out for Sara, on the internet. Though Sara can't physically see what Trick has, she asks him to describe to her the violence he has seen in minute detail. These descriptions lead Sara to begin drawing disturbing images, and even resorting to self-harm in order to learn what blood looks like, as the system has blurred even her own injuries from her. The episode seems to suggest that even despite the best efforts to protect one's children, full censorship of some of the more disturbing and violent facts of life, both quotidian (the aggressive dog Sara walks past every day on her way to school) and extraordinary (the video Trick describes of a murder by an extremist group) is impossible.
The experience of real parents seems to support this fictional assertion. In November of 2017, The New York Times reported that disturbing content had begun appearing on YouTube Kids, an app designed to only provide access to videos that are appropriate for children. Parents featured in the article described incidents of their children watching, horrified, as their favorite cartoon characters burst into flame after crashing a car, or died as a result of demonic hypnosis. The New York Times reported that "videos that are disturbing for children slip past its filters, either by mistake or because bad actors have found ways to fool the YouTube Kids algorithms," and emphasized that YouTube Kids is merely representative of the larger failures of parental controls. The article reads:
"While the offending videos are a tiny fraction of YouTube Kids’ universe, they are another example of the potential for abuse on digital media platforms that rely on computer algorithms, rather than humans, to police the content that appears in front of people — in this case, very young people."
Just as Sara was still able to discover and imagine disturbing situations and images through her peers at school, so too are current parental blocks able to be subverted. Arkangel, just like YouTube Kids or other forms of parental censorship, is not a foolproof system.
Nor does the episode seem to suggest that successfully and completely sheltering children from anything that might disturb them is a desirable outcome. Sara is developmentally and socially stunted by the censorship setting on Arkangel, as a session with a therapist reveals that she is unable to recognize the difference between two people talking or physically fighting. When her grandfather strikes ill and slumps to floor, Sara is unable to recognize that something is wrong; it is only the fact that her mother witnessed the event through the Arkangel program that he is able to receive help quickly.
Though these examples are the extreme results of a fictional program, there are real-life consequences of extremely protective parenting. In a piece in The Atlantic about the impact of overprotection on a child's development, numerous experts are quoted explaining that risk-taking and conquering fears can be an essential part of a child's emotional development. The piece cited a 2006 paper by playground safety consultant Joe Frost, who wrote, “In the real world, life is filled with risks — financial, physical, emotional, social — and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”
And the results of removing those risks from children's lives entirely can actually be observed and studied. The Independent reported that a study done by University College London found that controlling parents were more likely to cause permanent psychological damage in their children. The study followed children born in the 1940s until 2015, and concluded that children who described their parents as controlling or encouraging of dependence were more likely to score lower in surveys of happiness and well-being. Just as Sara's development ultimately suffers from the Arkangel censorship, so too do real life children exhibit adverse effects of extreme sheltering. Perhaps, then, "Arkangel" can be understood as a warning against the understandable temptation to shield children from everything negative in the world, no matter the cost.
Yet the episode contains nuance on this issue, as the narrative doesn't shy away from portraying the effect that exposure to all that is available on the internet has on children, and their development into young adults. At the suggestion of a therapist, Sara's mother deactivates Arkangel's protective filter and puts her control pad away. Sara continues to grow up without a shield from the frightening dog, or from blood, but most especially from the violent and pornographic online videos that Trick shows her. And these videos, the pornography in particular, are not merely a blip on Sara's radar: they continue to effect her long into young adulthood. Sara's first sexual experience (with a now-teenage Trick) is informed by the pornographic content she's had access to. She engages in dirty talk throughout the encounter, and afterwards it is Trick himself who tells her that she doesn't need to act like the girls in the pornos when they are together. But with online pornography informing Sara's expectations of sex, it makes sense why she would act the way she did.
Though featured very briefly in the episode, online pornography is having a major impact on the development of adolescents and how they experience sex as young adults. A piece in HuffPost featured responses from male readers about how pornography effected their sex lives, and many of the answers featured stories of how viewing porn as young boys shaped their view of sex. One reader shared, "I was 12. [Porn] made me wrongfully perceive sex as an object or activity for pure leisure, with no emotional value attached whatsoever." Another wrote:
"I was 13 when I had my first experience with porn. It gave me what turned out to be a very false idea of what having sex would be like. It wasn’t until I actually experienced sex for the first time that I really realized that using porn as a how-to guide does not work."
But it isn't just men whose views about sex have been shaped by pornography. Another HuffPost piece reported answers to a Reddit thread posted by black_brotha, asking women what they learned from porn. Most of the responses expressed frustration with the unrealistic, and mostly white, beauty standards perpetuated by pornography, and shared how their anxieties about what men expected from them in a sexual encounter were shaped by porn. One woman wrote: “I thought having sex with a man meant having to pretend I enjoyed it even if I wasn’t, that it didn’t matter if I had an orgasm, and that it was normal for a guy not to give a sh*t about my pleasure.” Another shared: “I was 100 percent convinced that I needed labiaplasty and was really ashamed to be naked in front of [a] guy because I thought he would think I was a freak.” Clearly pornography has had a deep impact on the way both men and women first begin interacting with sex as young adults.
These testimonials, and Sara's experience in "Arkangel", reveal that although perhaps sheltering children from the realities of life entirely isn't advisable, neither is allowing them to have exposure to inappropriate content too early. Technology makes everything from videos of beheadings to violent pornography readily available, and viewing such things at an early age can have long-lasting impact on the development of that child.
So if the Arkangel program represents the pinnacle of overprotective parenting — internet censorship and parental controls brought to the real world — and Sara's sexual experience demonstrates the results of having full, unfettered access to the internet, then what is the solution? Are parents doomed to fail no matter what?
The episode seems to suggest that a happy medium is the best course. Of course, 3-year-olds shouldn't have access to videos of violent street fights. But children can't be sheltered from the realities of life forever without suffering the consequences that Sara did, or the children in the University College London study did. Children should be protected, "Arkangel" seems to suggest, but not made to live in an alternate reality that leaves them unprepared to have a healthy, adult life in the actual one.
But the forces of technology are making this middle ground increasingly impossible to strike. Giving children unfettered access to the internet grants them exposure to disturbing content, but how can parents monitor what their children are doing online if even apps designed for children, such as YouTube Kids, are unsuccessful at blocking inappropriate content? "Arkangel" presents a harsh reality: that perhaps, as technology grows increasingly advanced, parents will be forced to decide whether they should risk having their children see things they wish they hadn't, or go the route of Sara's mom, and choose to have their kids grow up in a sheltered universe. That universe sounds nice, but ultimately it doesn't really exist.