Guarding kids in a sexualized culture

Janeen has an infectious smile. It shines on the soccer field or when she plays piano. But when this 12-year-old honor roll student’s grades began to slide, her mom began to dig for answers and discovered her daughter engrossed in Internet pornography.

Therapist Richard Blankenship (who changed Janeen’s name for this story) treated Janeen for three months to help her escape what had become a secret addiction. Janeen’s story raises concern, but even more alarming is the increased exposure kids have with Internet pornography and its impact on them.

Blankenship said many parents are in denial, believing their child or teen would never access content online that is inappropriate, especially pornography. But in today’s sexualized culture kids are being exposed to constant lures and suggestions that make them curious at an ever-younger age, he said.

“A 5-year-old was brought to treatment with me after charging $700 worth of porn to the family credit card,” said Blankenship, a dad and director of Cornerstone Professional Counseling Center in Atlanta.

The boy had been accessing free porn online without his parents’ knowledge for three months before he noticed a link where he could use a credit card. “The charge of $700 was a one-time thing, but it was the culmination of a pattern of increasing porn viewing over a three-month period.”

Early detection and intervention is key, said Dr. Doug Weiss, a father, psychologist, and nationally known author who has appeared on many national talk shows including Oprah, Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and 20/20. Parents need to prepare better so they can react in a way that encourages healing, he said.

About 93% of boys and 62% of girls will be exposed to Internet pornography and most will deal with it on their own. Unfortunately, that can lead to a lifetime of problems. For instance, an obsessive use of pornography is listed as a major contributing factor in 56% of divorce cases.

To protect their kids and intervene when needed, parents need a plan for media use. And they need to follow, enforce, and update that plan throughout the year.

“Parents have a difficult job, because technology is constantly changing,” agreed Kevin Maginity,  a pastor and Internet Safety Consultant with Covenant Eyes. “But if parents create a plan, consistently apply it, and talk about these issues with their kids, it can have a major impact on their kids’ lives.”

Use Modern Tools for Modern Times

The first step every parent should take is to download software that monitors how computers and handheld devices are used, said Weiss. Covenant Eyes is the only software he recommends, he said, because the Internet Accountability reports open doors to conversations that most parents are missing.

If parents don’t take this first step, all of the other Internet safety guidelines are likely to fall short.

“There is a porn magazine wherever there is a computer,” Weiss said of computers without parental controls and monitoring. “If a parent wants their kid to watch porn, just don’t [install monitoring software] on their phone.”

Using software to monitor Internet use allows parents to catch small problems before they become big issues, he said. Of course, porn isn’t the only problem online, so being aware of Internet use is the first step in prevention for all sorts of issues, Maginity said, including online bullying and how kids use YouTube, for instance. How a child or teen uses the Internet gives parents unexpected insight into their kids’ interests, questions, and what they are being exposed to by their friends.

Limit Screen Time

Setting limits on screen time encourages better choices, because kids are less likely to surf the Web and surf television channels out of boredom, said Jason Evert, an international speaker and author of 10 books. He and his wife Crystalina speak to more than 100,000 teens a year, and they see kids who are absorbed with media.

“The average child will spend more time watching television by the time he turns 7 than he will spend talking to his father through the entire course of his life,” Evert said. “The average teen spends 8 hours a day in media usage.”

Further, he said, when you include multi-tasking with media, such as listening to music while engaged in other activity, the average teen consumes 11 hours worth of media a day. “That’s more time than they spend sleeping or at school.”

Weiss said this continued consumption of media often perpetuates the sexualization of kids and teens. “It’s not just the pictures, it’s the ideas,” he said. “They’re watching TV shows where everyone is cheating on everyone else, and they are still learning about sexually inappropriate stuff.”

Weiss suggests that parents create a media and Internet budget for kids and teens, which is limited to two, possibly three hours of total media use. He encourages parents to create an overall baseline for television, gaming, handheld devices, and Internet use, such as a half hour or an hour per day based on age. Then kids can earn additional time for doing chores or as reward.

“So you can use media as currency,” Weiss said. “It’s a way of giving the kids some power in that decision (for how media is used).”

Make Conversations Routine

Pornography, Weiss argues, is part of growing up today. He challenges parents to not only block access to porn but also to talk to their kids about it, because being exposed to sexually inappropriate content is only part of the problem. The bigger problem is secrecy. That secrecy, he said, eats away at the hearts and minds of kids and gives porn its real power, which can lead to addiction.

“I have had lots of conversations with my teens and thousands of other teens, but you want to have a conversation that (explains) pornography is part of our culture, because it is, just like smoking,” Weiss said. “You know we see people smoke and we have told our kids since they were 2 that smoking is a bad choice. People can make bad choices and pornography is a bad choice.”

When and how often should parents talk about inappropriate content in media? Don’t wait until they are teenagers, these experts agree, and age-appropriate conversations should be at least monthly. They can spawn from television, radio, and magazine ads, or from what they hear others say.

“The world is not ashamed to speak about sexuality to your kids, and if parents are quiet, then the world will fill that void of silence,” Evert said.

Weiss encourages parents to practice these conversations with their kids, because kids need to know that their parents are mature enough to handle it. A child or teen may feel guilt, anxiety, and be upset about seeing inappropriate content; but even more they may be afraid of how their mom or dad might react if they talk about it. To help a child be comfortable talking about anything, Weiss has parents and kids rehearse their conversations to set the stage for when real life happens. A child or teen makes up a story about seeing inappropriate content at a gas station or on the Internet, and then they walk into the room and share that story with their parent.

“We’re going to do this two or three times so that you know that you can tell me and you’re not going to die, OK?” Weiss explains. “You have to practice it, otherwise they may not tell you.”

Like smoking, Weiss tells kids, pornography is a bad choice and it encourages people to make unhealthy and hurtful choices. Because of that it hurts their spirit, their mind, and their emotions. When kids lie they typically feel bad about it, he said, but keeping a porn secret is about 100 times worse than that feeling.

“So pornography is designed to give you a secret; so it’s designed to make you sick,” Weiss rehearses as though a parent talking to a child. “You are going to see it here or there, maybe at school or someplace in public. When you do, just let me know… there’s no secret and you won’t feel so bad.”

Practice Basic Internet Safety

It’s easy to let the basics of Internet safety and guidelines to purity slip. Parents are busy and kids test and even push limits. Being consistent in upholding the technology rules of the house will establish them as the family norm, Maginity said.

For instance, kids should only use Internet enabled devices in open or common areas, and not in bedrooms or behind closed doors. This basic practice has been a hallmark of Internet safety for years, Maginity said, but as laptops and handheld devices made the Internet more mobile many parents wavered on this precaution.

Internet filtering is especially important for younger kids. In fact, Maginity said, parents should accompany their young children whenever they go online, because mistakes are too easily made. As a bonus, filtering will keep accidental inappropriate exposure to a minimum, even when parents are guiding the mouse for their young children.

Maginity recommends these best practices.

  1. Set clear rules for how the Internet and technology may be used in your home. That will vary based on the age of family members and the personal beliefs of parents. Remember the goal is to teach kids how to use the Internet wisely, not to simply put up barriers. Teaching them now will prepare them for when they are older.
  2. Become knowledgeable. Parents need to put effort into learning about websites and how the Internet is used. Internet Accountability reports from Covenant Eyes can help parents keep up with their kids. After all, a new website is launched every second.
  3. Many sites and social media require usernames and passwords. A parent should know all password information, including that for e-mail, social networking, chat, etc. And parents should log in and review these accounts on at least a weekly basis. Being your child’s friend on Facebook is not enough as social networking sites allow the user to hide interactions.
  4. Many sites are interactive and allow kids to personalize the web content. Work with your child to create online nicknames that don’t give away personal information, such as a real name, date of birth, or address.
  5. Everyone in the household, including adults, should serve as good role models.
  6. Kids should never share personal information, such as their real names, their phone number, address, or school name, etc., with someone they meet online. And tell your kids to never agree to meet someone they met online.
  7. Video chat should only be allowed when accompanied by a parent.
  8. Monitoring and good conversations will also help you know if your child is engaging in or the victim of cyberbullying.
  9. Out of the box, many smartphones and handheld devices are nearly devoid of parental controls. Learn the facts about how to monitor smartphones and handheld devices.
  10. Spam can be a source of pornography and scams. Tell teens not to give out their e-mail address or respond to junk mail.

“Being a good cyber parent requires consistent action,” Maginity said. “You’re never done. The task is never complete, however, doing it well can save you from problems that require a lot more effort and even pain.”