Recently, Flea went on a sleepover with her four best friends.
As 9 year olds are inclined to do, they stayed up way too late, chatting, giggling and watching music videos.
Back home, Flea was full of tales of everything they’d got up to, and at bedtime she wanted to show me some of the videos she had seen with her friends, and the things they had Googled.
It would be fair to say that we are pretty strict about access to technology in our family. Flea isn’t allowed to use search engines or the Internet at all unless she’s sitting next to me, or in school. So I raised an eyebrow and asked what exactly they’d been Googling. My Mum senses were tingling.
I was proved right when Flea immediately flushed and became quite upset. “I closed my eyes and I didn’t want to watch, Mummy!” she insisted.
Actually, the girls really hadn’t seen anything at all troubling, but Flea was upset because she knew she’d broken the rules and been caught out. I tried to explain to her why those rules are in place – because alongside all the funny and brilliant things online there are things that might upset, confuse or frighten her. And especially in someone else’s house, where they may not use filtering the way we do at home, there’s nothing to stop you accidentally finding something that you can’t ever un-see.
“You could end up seeing something about sex that’s really for older people, or there can be people being unkind to animals,” I told Flea. “There are even maniac terrorists chopping people’s heads off, and Lord knows I don’t ever want to see that, much less have you see it.”
Flea nodded earnestly and apologised.
Or so I thought until an hour later when Flea appeared at my side in the kitchen, tear-stained face looking up at me. “I’m just a little bit worried about the terrorists,” she whispered.
I spent the next hour snuggled up with Flea on the sofa trying to answer questions that have no (sensible) answer. Why do people chop other people’s heads off? Why do they fly planes into buildings? Are there terrorists in the UK? What if they got a private plane and came to where we live? How do we know that we are safe? What if something happens while I’m sleeping?
What can you say?
You can say that 99.99% of people in the world are fundamentally good and peaceful. You can say that terrorists mostly live in big cities, and most of the wars in the world are happening far away. You can explain that terrorism is about generating fear, and it’s driven by inequality and dogma and the fundamental belief some people have in their right to impose their views and lifestyles on everyone else.
You can talk about all the people and processes in place to help keep us safe, wherever we happen to be. You can point out that there are a thousand things that can go wrong every day, big and small, but the miracle of life is that by and large, everything usually turns out okay, and so long as you’re with people who love you, it’s going to be fine.
But what you can’t say – not really – is “we are safe”. Because we can’t ever know that with absolute certainty.
And you can’t say, “It won’t happen here.” Because it could.
So what do you say?