Parenting in the Age of Online Porn

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Flash back to sixth grade. Curious about my body, puberty, and all the rest, I spent hours lying on our living room rug as a 12-year-old, pouring over my parents’ huge Merriam Webster dictionary, looking up anatomically correct, gender specific verbs and nouns. There were even a few illustrations.

A remarkably quaint scene today.

Recently, while cooking dinner and helping my youngest daughter look online for volleyball sneakers, I blithely suggested she search the Steiner standby for last-minute sports equipment, ye olde Dick’s Sporting Goods. I told her to type in “D-I-C-K-S.”

A few seconds later, she started screaming. I ran to the monitor, clueless. I got a clue, fast, when I saw what was on the screen. I started hyperventilating, and maniacally clicked the mouse to make the images go away.

That was my crash course in the reality that today, kids of any age can type a single word or phrase into a search window, and get deluged by misogynistic images, mock torture, and graphic child pornography that would leave many an adult traumatized. I can’t even imagine a child’s reaction.

What’s a parent to do?

Naturally, kids are curious about sex and their bodies. The problem is that sipping from the Internet fire hose offers far too much information, unedited and unparented. We adults must step in. And trust me, this is one dirty cesspool.

According to the New York Times “Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography” researchers at the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center have conducted long-term studies since 2000 on children’s exposure to pornography, which suggest the following alarming statistics:

  • 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls are exposed to online pornography during adolescence
  • 42 percent of online users ages 10 to 17 have seen pornography
  • 66 percent view online pornography unwittingly and unprepared, often as display ads on file-sharing sites

Deep breath here. The first bracing truth is accepting that every device your child has access to – the kitchen computer, your iPhone, your older son’s laptop, and their best friend’s iPad they use to watch movies during sleepovers – is a potent and efficient pornography-delivery vehicle.

In other words, we cannot stop the supply of sexually explicit images into our children’s lives.

So it’s important to tackle the demand side of this equation.

Which means talking to your children about online pornography.

Which means talking to your kids about human sexuality. Including the deviant versions.

Not at the tippy top of most parents’ to do list.

But doable.

Here is my advice. Take the plunge without too much thought, as if you were stepping off the high dive. Employ a casual but blunt tonality. Good to channel a deadpan Bill Murray or the NPR CarTalk guys here. These are the messages I use:

Kids, gather round for yet another embarrassing Momma sex talk. Curiosity about sex and your bodies is normal. Sex in fact is pretty darn normal too. I’m here to answer any questions not already covered in my 65 prior sex talks with you all. But please, don’t turn to Google for sex questions. There are a lot of adults out there who make money off of creating pretty graphic and violent online sexual images. And believe it or not, some adults want to look at picture of naked children and to have sex with kids. This is weird and dangerous. In our family, you are not allowed to look at this stuff online because it’s not healthy. And do not ever go to an Internet sex chat room or communicate with anyone online at one of these sex sites. Your friends may think it is entertaining to look at this stuff with you. Please walk away from the screen if so. Tell them you have to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. I will kill you otherwise.

Now that my kids are all teenagers, a word to the wise: as much as you may recoil from talking to preteens about sex and Internet pornography, this is your only chance. By the time your sweet, docile, innocent children become teenagers, their “listening to parental advice” bandwidth diminishes dramatically. Often overnight.

No matter how scrumptious and obedient your particular child is at age eight or nine.

And no matter what niceties you tell yourself today, your reluctance to talk to your children about explicit Google sex searches will increase exponentially, especially when competing with other potentially fatal teen topics like alcohol, drugs, when to have intercourse, rules about driving an automobile, and the need to be home by curfew. So brace yourself and have that online sex talk. Today.

Fortunately, there is good news about the upside of parents who brave talking to kids about sexuality and online access to graphic, disturbing online images. Experts who monitor teenagers and sexuality cite plentiful evidence suggesting our closeness and candor with kids is more powerful than the Internet can ever be. Teenage pregnancy has dropped sharply in recent years; the number of sexual partners that teenagers have is down; the number of ninth graders having sexual intercourse has fallen; and in most cases where sexual predators have approached children online, the children have easily identified, blocked or ignored the solicitations.

As formidable as the Internet can be, it’s no match for parents willing to have difficult face-to-face conversations with kids about healthy sexuality and the reality that Internet pornography plays no good role in kids’ lives today.

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