The Tangled Web

Mike Stevenson

A report has recently pointed out that worldwide, more than one child in every hundred had accessed some form of pornography by the age of six.

Many parents are concerned that children are now growing up far too fast. In a recent study 89% of parents agreed that children now are under pressure to grow up far faster than previously. Over half regretted that children believe body image and appearance are among the most important things about other people. Almost a third thought children were being pushed into an interest in sex before they were ready. Parents realised that a combination of marketing, media and peer group pressure meant that children no longer wanted to be seen as children. Another survey suggested that nine out of 10 parents felt all equipment allowing internet access should have a default block on pornographic websites. It is reported that many parents find it difficult to discuss such issues with their children. Whoever has the final responsibility, it is the case that children can’t protect themselves in these matters and so the onus must fall on adults as individuals, family groups, or through organisations such as schools and governments, in our wider society.

While it is possible to involve older children and adolescents in discussion and debate about pornography and its impacts and potential dangers, our younger children simply don’t have the vocabulary or the maturity to engage in such conversations. So what can parents do to ensure that the process begins? There isn’t an easy answer, but it appears that as soon as children are going online it is time to at least begin the conversation. As in all things involving young children we must accept that their initial focus will be on themselves and on things which are familiar to them. We must also understand their need to deal with real things as examples, as the capacity for abstract thought will still be some years ahead. So, making things appropriate to their developmental level and accepting that we are planting seeds which may well not become fully fruiting plants until the children concerned reach adulthood, we might continue

  • to point out the things around us which are useful but also potentially harmful – hot pans, electric sockets etc.
  • to stress the need to behave differently when with people we are close to and those we don’t yet know.
  • to present strategies children can use if they encounter things that worry, distress or frighten them. (Tell a trusted adult?)
  • to help children to name body parts and to understand that we may use names within the family that we wouldn’t use when speaking to a doctor or a nurse. (Teach them the proper names as well!)
  • to introduce the idea of privacy – some things can be shared with everyone, but others are private.
  • to monitor and control what they may see on TV, in books, and on the internet.
  • to emphasise that some things are unsuitable for young children but have to be waited for until they are old enough to use them properly. (Start with the family car?)

None of these actions is directly related to protecting children from exposure to inappropriate and pornographic materials but they will certainly lay the foundations on which everything that needs to follow can be built. Without exposure to such ideas as young children it will be much harder to deal with any issues arising as they grow older.

As adults we might consider the differences between the ‘needs’ of children and their ‘wants’. If children need a mobile phone for security purposes, at what age does it become appropriate for it to become a smartphone with internet access? What monitoring procedures might we insist on if children do have access to smartphones? Might the purchase of such a phone become conditional on us having parental rights to monitor its usage? We are the purse holders in the matter and that surely gives us some rights in the negotiations. Equally, parents will have to decide when the family computer which is used by children in the living room or kitchen and is therefore easily monitored, transforms into the personal laptop, tablet or smartphone which is used in the relative privacy of the bedroom. Perhaps we might insist in both cases on the condition that the young person is prepared occasionally to show us that the devices are being used responsibly? Or we might insist that the only search engine to be used is ‘Google Safe’. If we accept that the best internet pornography filter is an emotionally resilient child who knows what is and isn’t appropriate material to look at and engage with, then we might see this monitoring not as heavy handed intrusions on privacy, but as necessary stepping stones on the way to help our children become those resilient people.

Children are often the most computer knowledgeable people in a family, and often there are multiple points of access to the internet in a home, so even if parents are extremely capable they may well struggle to always be on top of it. However, it’s not just pornography that is an issue; it’s self-harm, anorexia, bomb making, suicide sites, bullying and all the other dark areas we might not wish our children to be concerned with. Sometimes parents don’t realise that social networking sites contain a lot of sexualised content put there by children. It is reported that much of the material accessed by paedophiles is placed on the internet by children. Then there’s the newer phenomena of sexting and the problems it causes. Parents should perhaps look regularly at the pictures arriving and being sent from their children’s phones and social networking websites. A primary school head discovered that 24 out of 33 eleven year olds in his school had pages on a social networking website set up for them by their parents, even though the minimum age to have such pages is fourteen. The internet is set up as an adult environment and if we allow our children to go there, surely they deserve the same supervision and protection we would provide in any other adult environment?

Society has always held the view that it is the right of parents to protect their children – to decide when and what they eat, when they go to bed, or how they access money. But the “anything goes” approach that has developed on the internet, means that parents on their own may no longer be capable of continuing that protection. There are Government proposals to legislate for more protection to be offered to families. However, there is still controversy over whether an ‘opting in’ process which allows adults to access pornographic materials which are otherwise blocked, is more appropriate than an ‘opting out process’ which means that individual computers can be stopped from accessing such websites, is the most appropriate way to proceed. Whatever the government decides to do, ultimately the remedy lies with ourselves as parents. Children who know and understand the roles of people in nurturing relationships will more readily understand why pornography is so harmful to themselves and others. It is also true that children learn much by imitating the examples around them. Perhaps the real power of parents is to live as examples of the caring, supportive, nurturing and responsible lives that will make pornography simply seem irrelevant to their children.

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