The documentary Children Online shines a highly revealing light on how the lives of kids in the Czech Republic are increasingly shaped, if not dominated, by the internet. The film shows that for today’s generation YouTube videos have largely supplanted television, to be offline is to be an outsider and cyber-grooming is a genuine threat. I discussed Children Online, which has been screened at 20 festivals, with its director, Kateřina Hager. My first question: What had drawn her to the subject to begin with?
The first character in the film is called Zachy. He’s a young boy who’s a YouTuber, or video blogger [with over 140,000 subscribers]. What age is he? And are there a lot of kids like him?
“Our first protagonist Lukáš – his name in the film is Zachy, because that’s the name he uses on his YouTube channel – is 12 years old.
“I think it’s a growing phenomenon now that young children see the opportunity and start to become YouTubers.
“But also many children spend a lot of time on YouTube, watching YouTube. I think the majority of children from 10 years up are a very active audience of YouTube.”
Just to make clear what we’re talking about, what kind of videos is this boy Lukáš posting?
“Like many YouTubers, he offers videos covering his everyday experience, everyday life.
“For many parents it’s hard to understand why children would find that attractive, but they actually do find it interesting and exciting to look into some other child’s private life.
“But Lukáš does videos that he says are mostly done by girls, in that he focuses more on fashion videos. And that is also a source of a problem.
“There have been many cases around the world of children who have committed suicide because of hateful comments.”
“Because on one hand he’s become very popular and he’s got many views, but on the other hand he’s being criticised a lot, because that’s not what a boy is supposed to do.
“He’s not supposed to talk about fashion and to show his clothes, etcetera.”
I was surprised to learn that there are videos made criticising him or attacking him, and that there is such a phenomenon as “dissing” videos. I’d never heard of such a thing.
“Yes, it’s a very typical problem, because sometimes children – and even adults – can think that they can easily become famous on YouTube, but they don’t realise that there are other people out there who will react actively to their work.
“In the case of Zachy, who has a lot of views and his YouTube channel is popular, he also creates a lot of reactions on the side of haters.
“Some of them make hateful videos against him, hoping they will also reach a lot of views.
“He’s popular so by making videos about him they will increase the popularity of their channel, by attracting people to those videos.”
Even for an adult it must be difficult to take a lot of online abuse. How is a 12-year-old boy able to cope with this kind of treatment?
“I think for children it must be quite traumatising going to sleep knowing that there are hundreds of people writing really awful comments about them on the internet.
“Zachy says that he deals with it OK, but of course we can’t enter his head and really tell his feelings.
“There have been many cases around the world of children who have committed suicide because of hateful comments.
“So I think it’s time to speak about that issue.”
What do his parents say about it? If I had a 12-year-old boy who was getting a lot of online abuse I’d be saying, Do something else, don’t be on YouTube.
“Well, I think a lot of parents react the same way.
“Lukáš, Zachy, is, I would say, a very strong personality. I think his determination to become a star on YouTube was very strong.
“I don’t think it’s so easy for parents to stop him doing that.
“There are a lot of parents who are critical and say, My children can’t do this and they can’t access Facebook, we don’t allow our children use these sorts of social media.
“But during my research for this film I often encountered, even among my friends, some people who are very conservative in terms of their children using the internet, but they also very often don’t know that their children are doing that anyway.
“Without their knowledge, their children actually have a YouTube channel and have never asked them for permission to become active on social media.
“Children often use different social media than their parents, so not only don’t their parents know that their children are active in that way, but they often don’t even know about the existence of certain social networks [laughs].”
You also have other characters in the film, including a boy who spends a lot of time playing games online and you have girls who are the victims of cyber-grooming. One thing that comes across in all of those cases is that these kids seem to feel strong peer pressure to be essentially always online.
“It’s almost impossible for children not to be online from a certain age. Otherwise they feel they’re missing out on something.”
“Yes. I think that’s another big challenge for parents. They might say, We don’t want you to be online.
“But as some of the protagonists say in the film, it’s almost impossible for children not to be online from a certain age.
“Because otherwise they feel like outsiders, they feel they’re missing out on something.
“In fact a lot of communication between peers in a class takes place on Facebook or on the internet and not being connected is a stigma for these children sometimes.”
How is the Czech Republic in this area relative to other European countries or by world standards?
“Personally I find that a lot of Czech parents are quite liberal in their strategy in terms of children and internet.
“The international research EU Kids on Line showed that Czech children spend a lot of time on the internet in comparison to other European children.”
The most distressing part of the film is the section about the cyber-grooming of girls. In practical terms, what can parents do to make sure that their daughters in particular are not the victim of this kind of abuse?
“This is quite a challenging thing for parents today because we, as the first generation of parents that is dealing with this type of risk, don’t have experience with that type of communication and risks such as sexting and cyber-grooming.
“These are new things for us.
“So I think a lot of parents think that what happened to the protagonist in the film can never happen to their own daughter.
“But, and that’s what I want to show, the mother or the parents of the girl in the film had a very close relationship to her. And she comes from a very good background and is now a university student.
“So I think parents first need to be aware of that risk and to know that it can also happen to very good girls and that they should speak to their children about it and gain their trust.
“The film mentions this case where more than 50 Czech girls were harassed by one sexual aggressor on the internet.
“And from this huge number, only one girl actually found the strength and the courage to tell her parents.
“Without this, this many would maybe have continued much longer.
“Many of the girls involved were very young: 12, 13 years old.
“So I think it’s very important to gain their trust so they would actually have the courage to tell us if something worrisome happened to them on the internet.”
How does it work in your own family as regards your children’s use of the internet and being online?
“Of course, like every parent I’m trying to struggle with the situation.
“We try to maintain a certain strategy, but it’s very different for every parent now when children can connect to the internet everywhere. They have smartphones and they have access to the internet everywhere.
“So I think rather than to forbid, we try to teach them by our own example.
“As the first generation of parents that is dealing with this type of risk, we don’t have experience this type of communication and risks such as sexting and cyber-grooming.”
“For me what’s very important is that I try to encourage them to do creative stuff and things that could be helpful for them in the future.
“For example, I’m very pleased by the fact my oldest son, who’s a musician, learned how to compose music by himself.
“He actually was one of the composers of the music for my documentary film.
“So I’m very happy to involve him in the creative process and it’s an example of where children can actually learn from technology today.”