There are many wonderful ways children, tweens and teenagers use the internet. Communication with others is seemingly limitless, knowledge about hobbies, sports, just about anything, can be increased, news about world events is delivered instantaneously and information can be accessed for school/research (anyone remember encyclopedias?). There are also dangers from which children and young people need to be protected, specifically pornography.
Pornography is easily accessible to everyone anytime. It is not like the old days, when a person had to go to an actual “brick and mortar” store where “dirty magazines” were covered with paper and hidden away—not in plain sight. Today, it is a click away on the internet.
Pornography is an awkward subject for most parents to talk about with their children. Young people of various ages will most likely have different responses to pornographic exposure. For example, young children may stumble across it or be shown images they find disturbing. This could lead to a fear of sex or may result in trying to recreate what they saw with other children. In contrast, preteens and teens may seek pornography out of curiosity or to learn about sex. Since viewing pornography arouses pleasure centers in the brain, much like other addictive substances (drugs, caffeine, gaming), it can result in teens spending an inordinate amount of time watching it, keeping them from other healthier activities. Furthermore, since pornography often focuses on primarily male sexual gratification with little focus on the sexual and emotional needs of women, it provides a distorted, unrealistic picture of sexual relationships.
Many people turn to internet filters and parental controls. Internet filters such as Net Nanny and Covenant Eyes, which is specifically designed for pornography, are software products that prevent electronic devices from accessing certain websites based on the preferences of the installer. Parental controls can also help reduce the risk of your child encountering inappropriate material online. They are usually software products but may be hardware. These controls can limit access from unsuitable games or content searched online, prevent specific programs, set time limits for use as well as monitor and track location and activity.
Filters and restrictions are helpful, but children usually find their way around them. That is why it is essential to have age-appropriate conversations with your children, no matter what their age, about pornography and assure them they can always talk to a parent or trusted adult about what they saw that was either upsetting or evoked questions/concerns. Use resources such as NetSmartzKids.org, which is funded by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, to learn ways to start conversations or view real-life videos together that encourage tweens and teenagers to recognize risky behaviors and evaluate their online choices.
Structuring your child’s environment is also important. Begin by modeling appropriate technology use, whether it be computers, iPads or smart phones. Position computers in central locations in the house, not in bedrooms. Make a family rule about what time phones are turned off before bedtime and where they should be located overnight. Set and enforce limits around screen time for everyone, not just the children. As a family, decide time limits for social media, texting and gaming. Incorporate earning screen time by doing chores. Get crazy—establish text-free times for everyone in your home or if you are going to the store, mall, etc., leave your phone at home!
The internet provides a way to communicate with others and expand our knowledge about limitless topics. It is parents’ responsibility to help their children be prepared to cope with whatever they may be exposed to on the internet, including pornography. The best defense is a combination of factors including internet filters, parental controls and knowledge. TALK and LISTEN to your children, do not avoid the issue because it is uncomfortable. Share your values about relationships and sex. Reassure your children they can talk to you about anything they see on the internet and it’s OK. If you are concerned a child has been upset by what they viewed or a teen is spending a lot of time seeking or viewing porn, but they are uncomfortable talking with you about it, consider a few sessions with a psychologist. Sometimes it is easier for children and teens to talk with others about sex.