By Gavin Sharpe
In my day, one of the biggest fears parents had was what might happen to their child outside the home. Drink. Drugs. Crossing the road. The stranger on the bus. Today, if your child has access to any device that accesses the Internet, that child is probably as much at risk inside the home as outside of it.
What’s the Problem?
Generation Z spends an average of 9 hours per day consuming media online. From SMART TVs to video gaming devices, if your kid is on, the risk is on. These risks have the potential to impede a child’s mental and sexual development with potentially devastating consequences.
What’s the risk? The answer is exposure to graphic, age-inappropriate online content. And before you cry “Parental Controls,” I will tell you that’s arguably the equivalent of my parents putting a mini-lock on our drinks cabinet when I was a kid. At age 11, I knew how to open it.
Put another way, Generation Z has never lived without high-speed Internet, and they are not about to start. There is a place for parental control software, but software protection isn’t the solution.
So, how do we best cross the generational bridge, meet our kids in their world, and keep them safe? To do so requires us first to know what’s in their world.
The World Your Child May Inhabit – The Graphic Nature of Porn
A significant proportion of porn today shows violence against women – rape scenes and women being gagged are two of the most common themes in this category. Forget about #MeToo. Forget about consent or intimacy. Degrading and violent images are being beamed into children’s devices, minds, and souls.
“My child would not choose to look at that” might be your belief. If so, you are probably right. However, the billion-dollar porn industry has invested heavily in devising precise algorithms that lead children to pornography. It’s easy for me as an adult to shut down a porn bot that pops onto my screen. “Hi. I’m Alicia. Want to chat?” But how would a nine-year-old boy looking for friends respond?
Many children are therefore involuntarily exposed to porn. And teens who search for pornography as part of healthy sexual development will likely be directed to images that are graphically more intense than they were initially hoping to find. The point is that today’s generation of children are seeing degrading, misogynist, hardcore pornography whether they choose to or not.
What do we mean by age-inappropriate? Most recent statistics confirm the average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is 11. We know that many are exposed at a younger age. Children under 10 account for one in 10 visitors to porn video sites. Numerous surveys support the harsh fact that children are increasingly being exposed to pornography.
What’s the Impact of Children Looking at Pornography?
- Copycat Sex. Most pornography is aimed at males. In heterosexual pornography, it’s not so much that men are having sex with women but rather men are doing things to women. Many boys are learning what sex is (or rather what they think sex is) from pornography. Many boys will act out in their real relationships what they see online.
- Addicted to Porn/Sensitized to Sex. Most boys will not become addicted to pornography. Some do. Either way, the more pornography watched, the greater the likelihood that a boy will become desensitized to life’s ordinary pleasures while at the same time becoming hyper-sensitized to anything sexual. We call it the dopamine rush – the chemical our body releases when we enjoy pleasurable activities. The dopamine that gets released when we are super-stimulated by pornography cannot compete with the natural dopamine release of everyday life. So, when you ask the boy who is hooked on porn whether he wants to stay in his room masturbating to porn or have tea with Granny, the choice is simple. Granny loses out.
- Erectile Dysfunction. The more time boys spend watching porn online, the greater the chance that real-world sex will be less arousing. You can’t pause your girlfriend frame by frame to get the orgasm perfect. But you can in porn. In fact, you can have anything you want. You can create the perfect orgasm. That’s a tall order for any sexual partner to measure up to. It’s no surprise, therefore, that therapists like myself are seeing an increasing number of young men who present with erectile dysfunction in their sex lives as a result of compulsive use of porn.
- Loss of Self-Esteem. Many girls feel there is an expectation to have done to them what the women in porn have had done to them. When a 13-year-old boy expects his girlfriend to have anal sex because “everyone does it,” the negative impact on her self-esteem is inevitable, as are the anxiety and feelings of depression that often come with this.
- Injury. Girls are reporting physical injuries from anal sex that their boyfriends are performing as a result of their watching porn. Evidence also points to the fact that females who consume pornographic videos are at a significantly greater likelihood of being victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
- Body Image. Many girls also feel the need look like the women in the porn (which, as stated, is largely tailored to men) adding to societal issues around body image and contributing to girls’ sense of isolation and despair.
- Addiction. According to the streaming site Pornhub, 2018 saw the proportion of female visitors grow to 29%, an increase of 3 percentage points over 2017. The porn industry isn’t satisfied with targeting men. It is going after women, too. Successfully. Female sex addicts are growing in numbers.
Boys and Girls
- Sexual Templates. I have worked with many an adult client who has said, “I only get turned on when my partner does X or Y sexual act.” In some cases, the reason for that is that X or Y was done to them as children. In other cases, the client grew up watching pornographic videos where X or Y was performed. They became fixated on those specific sexual acts as adolescents. It became part of their sexual repertoire to the point where anything outside it now feels frightening or just not arousing.
- Shame. For both sexes, if there isn’t an opportunity to reality check what they are seeing, sex may become confusing and shame-based. Follow the possible thoughts of an 8-year old child. “I shouldn’t be excited but I am. There’s something wrong with me. I better keep this a secret.” It follows that if one’s first experience to sex is a shameful one, there is a probability that sex and all things related will be experienced as shameful. Shame underpins many addictions, including sex and porn addiction.
What’s the Solution?
Parental Control Software
Many educators argue for adopting Internet controls and restrictions until around ages 12 or 13 and then moving towards using accountability software. However, we will probably never outsmart Generation Z. Just as my generation found a way to smoke behind the school, today’s children will find ways to do what they want online.
A key difference today is that kids have a $100 billion industry helping them hide their stash away from the adults. For example, there are innocent looking apps designed to hide the edgy apps. So what you see on your child’s device may not reflect reality. The apps being hidden usually contain nude pictures and videos, opportunities to chat with anonymous strangers, and so forth.
Even if you successfully block your child’s access to porn using software that even the Russians can’t penetrate, you can’t stop them from seeing porn on the school bus thanks to little Johnny next door who’s got a mobile device with unfettered Internet access.
Good parenting hasn’t changed much over the years. My parents warned me about talking to strangers, what to do if I was offered drugs at a party, etc. We can do the same for our children. We can construct an age-appropriate dialogue to prepare our kids for their world just as our parents prepared us for ours.
If we are going to give our three-year-old an iPad to play with, it is arguably incumbent on us to prepare that child for the naked pictures he or she might see. On that basis, I believe it’s never too soon to talk to kids about sexualized content. The language we use and the level of detail we provide will change according to the child’s age, but we need to open and continue the dialog throughout our child’s life. We must create a permissive and safe space for an ongoing parent-child dialogue to happen and foster a culture in the home where each family member is comfortable talking about the stuff he or she sees online and how we all feel about it. We want our children to know that it is normal to be aroused from what they might see online but crucial to know that online porn doesn’t match the intimate, loving, consensual sex that adults have in the bedroom.
This type of parent-child dialogue requires us to look into ourselves. What were we were told (or not told) about sex growing up? What taboos do we have about sex? If we are uncomfortable talking about sex or we have our own shame, that is likely to filter down to our children.
The best tool parents have to fight the porn epidemic is themselves. Parents can help their kids separate fantasy from reality and guide them towards the healthy sexuality they deserve.