Parenting in the Internet age creates unique challenges that generations of parents before us didn’t experience. And usually that challenge is sexual content. The vast majority of parents aren’t cool with their children viewing adult content. Academic studies have shown us that the average age a child sees pornography for the first time is in adolescence. According to studies from the University of New Hampshire, 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to pornography on the internet before the age of 18, with most exposures coming after age 13. However, one statistic that you see floating around internet safety articles is that the average age of exposure to pornography on the internet is between age 10-12. That seems to be anecdotal, but the more I talk to parents with tween children, I can believe that it happens more frequently than not.
Now, I’m not here to talk about internet filters and browser protection. I probably will address that in the coming weeks as I do some homework and interview some friends who are using various applications and devices designed to protect families from unwanted internet content. Putting a barrier up to protect our families is certainly a worthy project to attempt, but I think we can limit accidental exposure to pornography and other unwanted topics if we change our children’s perception of the internet.
I’m just as guilty as the rest of the world when it comes to how I’ve shaped my kid’s perception of the internet. Thanks to smart phones, computers and tablets in classrooms, and the behemoth known as Google, we’re giving our children a false impression that the internet is omniscient, all-knowing.
Think about it. Your child just watched Wild Kratts and learned about lemurs. They ask you how long lemurs live. You say, “I don’t know.” Well, considering Chris and Martin just told them everything else about lemurs on the show, they keep asking (incessantly), so what do you do? You whip out your phone and say with a sigh, “Let me google it.” Five seconds later you reply, “Google says lemurs live 16-19 years.”
Your young budding naturalist is pleased and goes on their way to the next task of dumping Legos all over the floor. Ten minutes later, they as, “Can I see a video on how to build a tree with my Legos?” You whip out your phone or turn on the computer and pull up a Youtube video from 4 years ago that has over 86,000 views and you watch it together.
Later that day, you sit down to do a craft with your sweet children, and you of course say, “Mommy found this craft on Pinterest. We’re going to use this paint to put handprints on a picture frame for Grandma.” And you sit there with the perfect Pinterest image next to you as everyone does the craft.
We ask Siri, Cortana, or Google questions regularly. Sometimes because we are driving and need directions, sometimes to amuse the children with the funny responses, and sometimes because it’s easier than typing.
As parents we model daily for our children that computers and the internet hold the knowledge to all things they need to know. That in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The internet, computers, smart phones, tablets have made our lives easier in some ways. News and information comes at lightening speed. Instead of bookshelves of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and reference books, we now have web browsers and digital assistants.
We daily emphasize that all answers can be found on the internet, and then we are surprised when they admit to googling “What is sex” or trying to find YouTube videos demonstrating these fascinating new topics they hear friends talking about or heard mentioned in a song on the radio.
Part of valid internet security, and in that matter, sex education is educating your children about the actual reality of the internet: a lot of fantastically incorrect information is out there among all the good data.
You can give a person a sea of information, but if you don’t teach them how to navigate the ocean of data, they’ll capsize and drown. – Mandi Livingston
“But wait, how do I do that?!? I don’t want to pique their curiosity about sexy things.”
Sigh… I knew someone would ask that question, so it’s simple. You don’t start with sex. You start with basic conversation daily. Every time you google something, you slowly teach discernment, too. “Let mommy help you look for how long lemurs live, honey. I want to make sure I get the right answer. Sometimes incorrect information gets on the internet.”
See, that’s simple. You just told your 5 year old that you can help them find the RIGHT information. Their little brain just learned that not everything on the internet is correct.
As they get older, you sit them down and talk about the internet with them. Let them know that Abraham Lincoln didn’t say this:
Seriously, find something that is patently incorrect. Death Hoaxes are a good way to do this. As your child gets older, they become aware of certain celebrities. Last week, the internet told me The Queen of England died. Show them that isn’t true. Weekly, it seems, the hoax that Jaden Smith died appears in my social media feed; show them that isn’t true.
Part of our job of teaching our children is helping them learn discernment. And internet safety can begin with teaching them innocently that the internet, while amazing and wonderful and full of great information is also full of junk and hate and misinformation.
Children that are young and sit down to google something don’t know proper search terms. They don’t understand reliable sites. As much as I rely on Wikipedia for quick information, I realize that it is edited by regular people and can be flawed. Wiki editors love to put the occasional jokes in articles.
Sit your children down and show them how using health sites can lead to wrong conclusions. You and I both know you can google the common cold symptoms and end up thinking you have a tumor, a brain cloud, and Ebola. Wait, is that just me?
When you talk to your children about the internet, don’t build it up into a god-like idol full of wisdom and knowledge. Let them know that it’s made by man and flawed.
Tell them that you, as their parent, want to be their guide for this wide jungle of information. Tell them, “Honey, if we went to the jungle, would we need a jungle guide to help us make it safely through? Yes. We would. It would be fun to walk around and see the animals and plants and bugs. But if we didn’t have a guide with us, we might pick up a dangerous snake or try to eat the wrong plant. We might take the wrong path and end up lost. Well, the internet is like that jungle. I’m your guide. I can help you know what websites are safe, what websites have the correct information, what websites aren’t going to waste your time. So, when you want to find something on the internet, when you want to learn about something new, let me guide you. We can do it together.”
Now, will this magically stop children from googling “What is sex”? No, I’m not naive. As much as you can help them understand that Google is not all-knowing, some children are going to avoid awkward questions with their parents. That’s why we need to be sex positive with our children, talk about the topic before we have to talk about it, and it’s probably why we still need some filters and safety protocols with our internet connected devices. And I’ll tackle those topics in future posts.
But for now, slowly teach your children that Google isn’t God, and the internet isn’t all-knowing. We don’t need to teach them to be fearful of the internet, but we can teach them how to use it responsibly. And that goes for you, too, friends… check out those memes before you share them on Facebook. We’ve all been bit by bad information.
So, what do you think a young child using Google or Bing or Yahoo is going to find? Let’s demystify the internet for our children. It’s a simple process and might protect those little eyes from images they’ll never un-see.
Next in the series: a review of a several age-appropriate books explaining sex and reproduction