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I'm not going to demonize the internet here, which would be both stupid and inappropriate in a space that exists thanks to the global network.
The Internet is a great medium, giving access to an infinite wealth of information. But the exponential growth of the Web and the abysmal legal vacuum that reigns there, make it a Spanish inn where one can find the best, as well as the worst.
If you have children who are minors and old enough to use a keyboard, then you already know that the internet is an integral part of their lives. Any child born after the year 2000 has been exposed to the multiplicity of screens.
These "connected generations" are exposed to all the dangers of the Internet:
- pornographic or violent content,
- approaches by malicious 'guests',
- dissemination of private elements or personal details.
👨🏻💼 Your role, as a parent, is to prevent your children from falling into the worst, while preparing them to manage any possible exposure to inappropriate content.
This article will deal exclusively with the risk of your children coming into contact with pornographic content or being solicited by individuals with unhealthy intentions as they browse.
The danger of pornography on children
1. Voluntary and involuntary exposures
"Parents find it hard to imagine that their children would watch porn while they were away," - Jacques Henno.
Indeed, generally, parents prefer to believe that their children are indifferent to sexual matters. A misconception that can be explained by the unconscious part of any parent, not to see his child grow up, and to hope to see him stay as long as possible in the age of innocence.
But in our ultra-mediatized society, the child will understand well before adolescence that there are graphic supports representing people having sexual relations: pornography. And as for all the things that are forbidden to him by the grown-ups, he will be attracted by it.
Until the end of childhood, children will generally not look for pornography, out of obedience to their parents, or faith in the prevention discourse they develop. When using a computer, children understand and generally accept that certain sites are blocked for them by a proxy or parental control software. Children may even feel reassured by the presence of such protection systems, which remind them that their parents are "behind them".
When a child comes across a pornographic site, it is usually inadvertent, while surfing and clicking on an inappropriate page, or it may be by discovering material owned by older children:
- folders on the hard drive that were thought to be inaccessible,
- DVDs forgotten in the living room player,
- magazines that were thought to be better hidden.
Children can also come into contact with pornography by catching older children watching it on the computer or on the living room television. He or she may then try to repeat this viewing on his or her own in order to gain access to this "grown-up leisure activity".
Voluntary viewing occurs more during adolescence, which is the age at which individuals are more willing to stand up to the rules imposed on them. Viewing pornography then becomes a way to defy parental censorship at low cost.
Also, the awakening to sexuality of the teenager will push him to be interested in pornography, which at first sight, as a representation of a form of sexuality, could seem to him to be able to answer the questions which he asks himself.
2. The notions of conceptual memory and relative discernment
Contrary to popular belief, children are not completely ignorant of sexual matters. He understands quite quickly that he is the product of his parents' union, even if he has great difficulty conceptualizing the act.
This awareness is nowadays accelerated by the multiplication of sexual references in the media, leading the child to become more and more precociously interested in such things.
However, the child does not really understand the notion of sexual pleasure, as his or her own awakening to sexuality is still far away. The small child (less than 8 years) continues, more or less unconsciously, to link strongly the sexual act to the genitrix function which generated it, as recalls the psychiatrist Serge Tisseron, quoted by Jean-Charles Nayebi:
"Whereas the adult, when he sees such images, imagines himself in the posture of one or the other of the participants, the small child, him, imagines there initially... his parents. It is the conceptual memory."
To be able to benefit from a serene psychological development, the child needs to be reassured, and to imagine that it was conceived with love and tenderness, or at least in a shared pleasure.
However, children have only "relative discernment", i.e. "they take as true what is displayed on the screen". A child under the age of eight does not have the maturity to understand that pornographic images are staged between adults who are paid for them. They just see two people having sex, for real.
If he sees in this act violence and sadism, he will imagine that he himself is the product of a barbaric act, and will develop a form of repression towards his own conception. However, modern pornography is essentially based on violence and the use of the body of the other.
3. The destruction of modesty and intimacy
As children grow up, they develop the concepts of modesty and intimacy. Modesty gives the body its intimate dimension, from which the idea that one must respect one's own body will follow; then, in adolescence, it is through modesty that one understands that sharing intimacy is reserved for a chosen sexual partner.
Generally, when a child catches his parents having sex, he does not feel comfortable in this role of unwitting voyeur. Then, once he has understood what it was about, he usually refrains from going back, as soon as he senses the signs - isolation of the parents, late hour, etc. - of it.
The child refuses this visual attack on his modesty, because he would not want to be a victim of voyeurism himself: he accepts his parents' need for privacy because he also feels this need for himself.
But if the child is regularly exposed to pornography, he cannot develop either a concept of modesty or a concept of intimacy. This can have serious consequences:
- In some cases, the child internalizes a view of the body as a commodity, as a mere play object, or as a means of attracting attention. With no respect for their own privacy, they become extremely vulnerable to external sexual solicitations. And you can't control who they meet, whether it's online or in person. In adolescence, this abandonment of modesty can have disastrous consequences. Today's teens are willing to circulate photographs of themselves. Those who have lost their sense of self may end up distributing content of themselves in the nude and possibly in the open; this is part of a game that they are unable to appreciate the full consequences of - these kinds of photos invariably end up being distributed beyond their intended circle. Sometimes the distribution of this type of content is a desperate way (especially for teenage girls) to get attention and compliments from the opposite sex; a weakness that the more "predatory" teens will exploit, to the detriment of their more fragile peers.
- In other cases, the child will, on the contrary, oppose with all his might this abandonment of modesty to which pornography invites him. Seeing porn has been the source of a disturbance that he cannot manage: so his brain represses his questions in his unconscious. When the teenager reaches adolescence, when the questions linked to sexuality resurface, he seems unable to overcome this repression and to go towards the other. His awakening to sexuality becomes synonymous with suffering.
Prevention is better than cure
1. Don't let the screens decide for you
A physically protected but psychically risky communication? As a parent, you are less worried about your teenager chatting with anonymous people, at home, in front of his computer, than letting him go, at fourteen or fifteen, to a party where there will be strangers.
For teenagers and their parents, this way of chatting with others, without being visible, is often reassuring. It is estimated that more than half of the people who chat on forums do not do so in full view. It can be a risk for a child or teenager if they take what is said seriously.
There are many discussion forums on the Internet that claim to be designed for a child or young teen audience. These spaces choose terms and designs adapted to be attractive, and advertise themselves through other media frequented by the young public.
For example, the ChatRoulette and Omegle sites, among others, offer "random chat" services; they make it possible to randomly connect two users equipped with webcams, having been drawn at random from among all the site's connected users.
Each time they are put in contact, the individual can "zap" his interlocutor by pressing Next, and be immediately redirected to a new user. Encouraged by the almost perfect anonymity that reigns on this type of site, an impressive number of users expose themselves or masturbate on it.
The two above-mentioned sites have put in place systems that are supposed to curb the phenomenon (reporting malicious users, content detection, etc.), but these have very little effect. It is therefore not uncommon that after a few seconds of video, the caller strips naked or takes explicit positions. These spaces are very popular with children and teenagers, who find themselves subjected to unwanted content in a totally unpredictable way.
It is already questionable whether it is necessary for children to use chat rooms and online forums. Children still have the ability to easily form friendships with their neighbors and classmates. Also, if they use these spaces, it is mostly because they like the technology they offer rather than because they really want to make new friends.
"Very few young people talk to their parents about their online activities."
Your children will not become outsiders if they are not registered on the latest trendy site. But if, despite everything, you have chosen to give your children access to the web's exchange places, accompany them in what they see.
- Be there when they sign up for these sites, to see what information these spaces ask for, and what information your children are willing to give.
- Also be there to monitor any slippage, and to help the child understand the "virtuality" of any online encounter.
The contradiction is glaring: under the guise of modesty, we allow the most total shamelessness to take hold; for the sake of not shocking the child with questions that are too direct, we expose them to images that are not only shocking, but that put them at the mercy of people who don't care about their privacy, like their last shirt.
Remember that before adolescence, there is no secret garden that should remain off limits.
- Ask your kids who they chat with online, and if there are any contacts who regularly come back to talk to them in a more privileged way - in which case, you'll obviously want to keep a close eye on what they say.
- Ask them if they've ever been asked to send photos of themselves or meet in person. If your child uses chat programs, monitor what is said and exchanged. Most of these programs (Skype, Windows Live Messenger) keep a record of what is written.
- In the same way that some parents only allow their children to watch movies if they have already seen them and approved them or if they have had positive feedback, visit the spaces that your children frequent.
You don't have to tell your children, but nothing prevents you from consulting these forums to evaluate the content, the moderation policy, the nature of the exchanges made, the answers given to your children following their messages.
🔞 Don't let the screens decide for you
"[Screens] multiply the opportunities for children to be exposed to violent or pornographic images. It scatters the members of the same family around several screens, which makes parental control more difficult".
A growing number of parents have installed a television or computer in their child's room. Some to get "quiet", others to appear "as cool as the parents" who have granted this to their own offspring.
The child is at an age where he/she does not have a critical mind that allows him/her to analyze with sufficient distance what he/she sees. Therefore, until adolescence, watching television or going on the Internet should be done from one or more single sets placed in a public place, visible to all in the house, for example in the living room.
Don't give in to your children's demands for a TV or computer in their room. By doing so, you will lose all control over what they see after dark or with the door closed. An eight-year-old child has no need for a computer or television by himself. Remind them that a computer and/or television are available in the house, but that they don't hide in your home to use them.
Be just as vigilant about cell phones. Providing your child with a phone can be useful, for example if your child has to travel alone to and from school. However, Internet access is probably not necessary, since it is perfectly possible to surf on the family computer. You don't have to activate an online connection option on your child's smartphone.
Your child unknowingly expects this monitoring from you, even if he or she claims otherwise. You are the adult, you are - again! - a normative reference for him. If you don't supervise him today, he may blame you as an adult.
And if you are one of those technophobes who are put off by contact with a computer... well, you'll have to start! This reluctance that you have with the screens, your children will not have it, because the Net is part of their generational codes.
"The Internet is not as complicated as you think, you can easily protect your kids from these horrors that they don't have to see. A 7 years old child could do it" underlines the journalist Jacques Henno.
The use of the Net is indeed globally easy, the sites being conceived to be consulted by a broad public.
Don't hesitate to get help from a good parental control software.
2. Teach them how to surf with peace of mind
Let's be clear: you won't prevent your children from using the Internet for long. A child who does not go online will tend to be marginalized from the group, because he or she does not share the same codes as his or her peers.
This could also be detrimental to their academic development, as institutions are increasingly using the Net in their work (e.g. by asking for online research). In any case, if you forbid your children to access the Net, you would only encourage them to surf on screens out of your control (friends' computers for example).
Let's also remember that if the Net has brought pornography to the door of every home, it has also opened an infinite field of knowledge. The Net is only a medium for the transmission of information; no one would want to suppress DVD technology because it was used to distribute pornographic films.
Explain to them that they can talk to you about what they see, without fear of punishment.
Remind your children that they should not hesitate to come to you if they have seen content that challenges or bothers them. Explain that they will not be punished, but that you need to know what they have seen, so that you can verify that nothing that passes in front of their eyes is dangerous for them.
As explained above, a child's contact with pornography is usually involuntary, or suffered. It is therefore counterproductive to threaten your children with punishment if they see porn.
Worse, if you make it an object of punishment, you can be sure that your children will not inform you if they have seen pornography. For fear of punishment, they will hold on to the turmoil that the viewing has brought.
Teach them the basics of being safe online.
Your children will come into contact with other users in forums and chat rooms. It is important to teach your children some basic rules and principles of online behavior from the very beginning:
- Explain to your children that, because of the anonymity of the Internet, there is no guarantee of who is hiding behind a nickname or an email address, unless of course they know that person in the real world. Explain that a pseudonym is not an identity, but rather a kind of mask that one puts on to embody a character online.
- Remind them that they should never post personal content online. Explain to your kids that any content they put online can be duplicated and used over and over again, and that any personal photos or videos they send online will be out of their control forever.
- Similarly, explain to your children that they should never give out phone numbers or addresses. Online spaces for children and tweens are not dating sites but places for dialogue. Any request for personal contact information is particularly suspicious.
- Remind them never to chat with an unknown adult online. Adults have no business being in the children's or pre-teens' area. Don't hesitate to tell the moderators of these areas when an adult is clearly present.
Also, teach your children to recognize a few typical behaviors, which will help them detect that the person they are talking to is most likely not a child. In particular:
- If their interlocutor asks them for their precise contact information (real name, address, phone) especially in the early stages of the dialogue;
- If the caller sends a photograph very quickly. Some predators quickly send photos of themselves to their potential prey - these are usually photos taken from the Internet, or obtained during a previous exchange. But the one who sends a photo, generally does it with the aim of receiving one in return. But most of the time, on the Internet, people don't need to see each other to exchange. This is one of the codes underlying the use of the Net: we "know" each other without seeing each other.
- Any discussion in which the interlocutor wants to obtain information about the child's sexual or love experience is obviously extremely suspicious.
What if my child has seen porn?
How do I know if my child has been exposed to pornography?
Up to about age 8, your child may simply explain it to you in his or her own words. But from the age of 8 onwards, he will not brag about having watched this type of content.
Otherwise, it is possible to find out if a child has seen pornography:
- by searching browser history, or cached or recently downloaded files;
- if there is a sudden change in behaviour - child suddenly seems more rebellious, more aggressive, as if something is disturbing him/her.
Only one solution: dialogue
"The tendency among parents is to leave their children alone in front of the TV, without verbalising anything, without explaining anything" - Jacques Henno.
If you have discovered that your children have watched pornography, it is essential to talk to them about it.
"When a child sees videos (or images) of a pornographic nature, it has an impact on his or her psychological development, more or less important depending on his or her personality and history," explains family psychologist Sonia Prades.
This event will necessarily have a shocking dimension for your children, so it is necessary to remove the pin from the situation before it evolves into a trauma that will be harmful to them in the long run.
You are in an ideal position to discuss the subject with them, in the quiet setting of everyday life, thus avoiding dramatization. If, however, you feel that your children are embarrassed to talk about these things with you, or if you are completely unable to talk about sexuality with your children, then you should seek help from a counselling service, such as a school nurse, a family planning service or a psychologist.
We must explain to them that adults, when they have this type of relationship, put affection and tenderness into it that pornography will not show them.
Children must also be reminded that their bodies are sacred, and that they are in no way merchandise. They need to be reminded that it is fundamental to respect their own bodies and those of others, and that in pornographic videos, bodies are anything but respected.
If your children have seen images, they are probably facing real anxiety, because what pornography shows is a world away from their childhood universe. So don't be afraid to speak out; your children are waiting for concrete answers that will ease their anxiety.
Finally, don't be fooled: if generational codes evolve, your children will not be mature any faster than others. At 11 years old, they can explain the sexual act at length and use crude words in front of you to try to shock you. This doesn't change the fact that they are not yet mature enough to understand all the issues surrounding sexuality.
Read also: How Terry Crews' Pornography Addiction Nearly Killed His Marriage
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