protecting kids from pornography: the new responsibility of parents in the internet age

When I was seeing clients as a marriage and family therapist, one of the most common reasons families came into my office had to do with pornography.  I had many couples seek counseling services for this issue, which is a conversation for another time.  But I also had many, many families come into my office after discovering that one of their kids was looking at explicit material online.  These were not bad kids. In fact, most of them were great kids from great families.  Some of them were girls.  Some of them were as young as 11.  And always, the parents were completely shocked by their behavior.
I’m gonna lay something down that I want every parent the world over to consider:

There is a lot of pornography on the internet, and your teen will probably try to look at it.

Yes.  Your kid.

Because kids are naturally curious about sex.

Sexual curiosity is completely normal.  It is a part of growing up.  I can remember being very curious about how things worked as a teen.  I can recall looking through our family’s Encyclopedia Britannica looking for answers to what this whole sex thing was about.  Not because I was a troubled kid or because I had a strained relationship with my parents.  But because I was a normal teen.

What’s NOT normal is that today, kids can access video and images that are way beyond what their developing brains can handle.  When I was a kid the most salacious thing I was going to find in my home would be some anatomical drawing or a definition in the dictionary.  Nowadays, when kids go searching for answers, they are likely to stumble upon videos of real people in the act of sex. 

Talking about porn can be morally loaded conversation, even when kids are involved, so let me just say this up front: I believe that kids need to be protected from pornography, regardless of your own feelings about pornography.  I realize that adults have varying opinions on pornography, but I don’t think that a conversation about shielding kids from porn should just be a conversation amongst the conservative set.  Because, the thing is . . . it just shouldn’t be viewed by kids.  Even if you think it is perfectly acceptable for adults.

The problems with viewing pornography in adolescence are well documented, both empirically and anecdotally.  Studies have shown pornography use to result in a greater likelihood to sexually harass others, and a tendency to view women as sexual "play things."  In the publication Social Costs of Pornography, which assembled leading experts in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, neurophysiology, and sociology to study the effects of pornography on our society, the problem with adolescent pornography use is described as follows:
There is abundant evidence that children and adolescents use pornography to coerce each other into sexual behavior, while adults also
groom or coerce children by the same means. One therapist reports, “I am also witnessing more female adolescents tolerating emotional, physical,
and sexual abuse in dating relationships, feeling pressure to make out with females as a way to turn guys on, looking at or producing pornography so
that their boyfriends will think they are ‘open-minded’ and ‘cool,’ and normalizing sexual abuse done to them because they see the same acts
eroticized in pornography.” Indeed, one recent study finds that adolescent girls who report using pornography are more likely to report being victims
of passive violence, where they experience sexual harassment or forced sex at the hands of male friends or acquaintances.
A study focusing on juvenile sex offenders found that a disproportionate number of such offenders had been exposed to pornography as a child;
specifically, twenty-nine of the thirty juvenile sex offenders had been exposed to X-rated magazines or videos, and the average age of first exposure was
about seven-and-one-half years.
Internet pornography is often the first exposure that children and teens have to sexual images. This introduces a skewed view of human intimacy that is difficult to extinguish. These early learning experiences can negatively affect their future relationships and marriages, but they can also lead to casual attitudes towards sex and more risky behavior amongst teens.  Dr. Lynn Margolies explains this further:
In the absence of any context, and without having learned about or known healthy sexuality, children may experience depictions of sex as confusing and take the images they see to be representative models of adult behavior. They are thereby introduced to sex before they are ready through images they do not understand, which often involve sexual deviations, and sex detached from relationship or meaning, responsibility, and intimacy.

To recap: we don’t protect our kids from pornography because we think sex is bad or dirty. We protect our kids from pornography specifically because we want them to have a healthy sex life as adults.

So how does this play out at home?  An internet connection poses a huge risk for kids to access adult material.  Studies show that each year, about 40 percent of kids aged 12-17 visit sexually explicit sites either deliberately or accidentally. I think that as parents, we really need to come to terms with these numbers and be proactive about protecting our kids.  I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that simply talking to our kids will be enough, anymore than I’m going to stuff my 6-year-olds drawer full of candy and tell him not to eat it after I leave the room.  I think the most loving way to handle it is to remove access altogether. 

There are a lot of services out there that can filter out adult content so that kids are free to use the internet.  The simplest one I’ve found is completely free.  Windows Family Safety allows parents to set controls at any level.  For my kids now, we restrict free browsing and only allow them to go to a few pre-selected sites.  Once they are older, we can give them more freedom while still monitoring what they are doing.  I like this program because you can also limit your kids’ email and instant messaging access to approved contacts, so that you’ll always know where your kids are hanging out online and who they might be talking to.  It locks on SafeSearch in Google images and other popular search engines.  For parents who are ready to give older kids a bit more responsibility, there is a setting that allows all websites but lets you know if kids go to potentially inappropriate ones.  You can also set it to block all adult websites, or to filter for violence or other concerns.  It also gives parents control over when kids use the computer, what games they can play, and what programs they can run.

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Do you have controls on your family computer?  What systems do you put in place to protect your kids? And how do you monitor what kids do on the iPad and on cell phones?  We’re not quite at that stage yet but I’d like to know how other families manage smaller devices with internet access as well.


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