When it comes to porn specifically, I believe protecting and preparing children has less to do with managing internet access and more to do with being an approachable parent and talking about sex early and often in a positive way. Of course talking about porn helps too, which is why you should read part 1 and part 2 of this 3-part series.
When it comes to problematic internet behaviors generally (e.g. cyber-aggression, responding to sexual solicitations from strangers, engaging in sexting or webcam sex, exposure to violent or child pornography), I recommend first focusing on becoming a reduced-tech family. Putting more emphasis on the real world and less emphasis on cyber-reality can help kids and teens put their value and energy into their real lives and simply use the web as a tool to connect with others and learn about the world on an as-needed basis, instead of constantly drudging through the cyber-sphere searching for the next thrill.
Every family is unique, so you need to do whatever tech reduction works for you. The following are just some suggestions to get you thinking about what you can change about the technology environment in your household. Try something out and adjust as needed. For example, you might want to start out more stringent, and then allow more online autonomy as your children get older and demonstrate they can handle the responsibility. Regardless of how you’d like to implement a change, here are some tips to get you started:
1. Limit time. Help reduce problematic internet behaviors by reducing time spent online in a specific way. If you are trying to limit the use of technology in a general way (e.g. a few hours a day) it is easy to forget how much time you’ve been online on any given day. It is much easier to limit time by providing time windows when the use of the internet is allowed and windows where it is not, because it is difficult to forget that from 5-7pm there is no internet action going on in your household. You could also try a tech curfew (no internet after 7 or 8pm). Some families have found that having no tablet/smartphone usage from 5-7pm works, then they have a 30 min window to return emails, messages, and texts, and then off again at 7:30pm. There is also software which tracks time spent on Netflix, Facebook, Games, Word, Excel, etc…..and that is another way to monitor time spent on a computer doing recreational activities vs. homework activities. Whatever you choose, 24-hour unlimited access to the internet doesn’t mean we need to be online 24-hours a day. The internet isn’t going anywhere. We can take a break.
2. Limit space.Determining which areas of your house can be used to access the internet and which areas can’t be used can protect your children from developing problematic internet behaviors. It’s easy to sneak a peek at porn when at friend’s house or even in your own living room. However, it is really hard to masturbate to porn every day or to chat with a pedophile if there is no device to connect to the internet in your bedroom or bathroom. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to keep all devices that can connect to the internet in a public place. No laptops, tablets, or smartphones in bedrooms or bathrooms. They are not private devices, so they do not belong in private rooms. Here’s the catch: you should do this too. This is where I lose parents. You actually have to model this stuff in order for your kids to buy into it. Try to have a “home” for the devices such as a basket or cabinet (some families have a cabinet that locks for kids who sneak their devices at night). This sends the message that devices shouldn’t be attached to our bodies at all times just because they are portable. It also sends the message that these devices don't belong to the child, they belong to the parent who is allowing the child to use the device. You can also have other areas where gadgets aren’t allowed such as a dining room table or kitchen table. Try actually talking to one another while eating or actually concentrating on the food you’re eating. It’s kinda nice.
3. Limit access. You have to install computer monitoring software. I’ve had several parents tell me that they talked to their child about the internet, so they don’t need to install monitoring software. This is wrong. You do need to install it. And re-install it. Or filter the router. You can explain to your child that the monitoring software is not about their behavior, it is about the behavior of others….how others can find them online, or how pop-ups and viruses can occur when visiting certain sites, or how you can accidently end up on violent sites while doing research via google. There is software that can monitor PCs, tablets, and smart phones. There is also software where you can manually allow certain websites (e.g. sexual health sites) that may be automatically blocked. You can find more info here. Of course, there are ways for your child to get around most software, which is why you need to stay on top of passwords, scan for ghosting software, and re-install frequently. However, the more difficult you make it, the less likely he/she can be exposed to content for hours on end. And for younger children, the less likely they will come across bestiality while googling “my little ponies”. If you are concerned that your child is in consistent contact with adult strangers or is consistently visiting sexually explicit sites, you can always have your computer “read” by a professional and no amount of ghosting will be covered up…but I recommend being honest about that. Secretly recording a kid’s internet usage will likely do more harm to the parent-child relationship than good for the development of the child. Explain that they can do what they want on the internet once they’re an adult….but for now, because of the dangers online, it is important that you do what you can to keep them safe and healthy.
4. Teach accountability.When teaching your children about appropriate behavior at school, church, at a friend’s house, at home, or on the basketball court, make sure you also include the web. Cyber behavior should be thought of as an extension of the self…..or representation of the self. If you wouldn’t do it in-person, you probably shouldn’t be doing it online. Little kids understand this better than big kids who can think more abstractly and can rationalize their bad behavior online. One way to get your child to think about his/her online behavior is to have him/her make a contract. Here’s an example:
I won’t post mean comments/send mean texts
I won’t “like” or “favorite” mean comments or posts
I won’t visit websites that I wouldn’t visit with you behind my shoulder
I won’t post my address or phone number online
I will not friend someone I don’t already know in person
I will not distribute nude or sexy photos of other people
I will not send nude or overtly sexual pictures of myself
Now of course, I don’t actually believe that every kid will stick to everything in his or her contract, but at least you will have something in writing, so that everyone is on the same page about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.
5. Show respect for your child as a sexual being. This can include providing privacy (e.g. tell them you will always knock before entering their bedroom or bathroom); providing a diary or voice recorder to record their thoughts and desires; providing access to sexual health websites (have to manually allow if filtering); providing them with books about bodies and sexuality; allowing them to have private conversations with their friends on the phone and/or private time in-person, etc. This step is perhaps the most important one because it sends the message that your computer monitoring efforts aren’t about stifling their privacy or keeping them from figuring out their sexual self, it is about protecting them from all of the %@*! online.
6. Fill in with fun.Now that you’ve carved out some time where everyone won’t be glued to their devices, you can try some the following: paint, read a novel, play a board game, hang out in the backyard, take a walk, learn a musical instrument, grow a garden, get a basket-ball hoop and use it, set up a mini-golf course, visit a mini-golf course, organize a community garden, take dance lessons, meditate, go to sleep, write in a journal, make a collage, take up photography, floss, learn massage, volunteer at an animal shelter, adopt kittens, make your own yogurt, collect Fall leaves, go to a sports event, go to the theater, have a bonfire with s’mores, wash the car, write a poem, go to the zoo, ride a bike, bake cookies and give them to the neighbor, hand write letters and send them to friends, go fishing, make model planes and cars, de-clutter a closet or room, visit an assisted-living facility, make giant bubbles, have a yard sale and let the kids decide what to do with the profits, stargaze, make photo albums, build a snowman, go to the farmer’s market, learn magic tricks, put a puzzle together, take in a concert, do a fire drill, teach your kids about money and entrepreneurship, paint a room, adopt a family for the holidays, adopt a classroom and donate art supplies, learn how to change the oil in a car, go to a trivia night at a local pub/restaurant, fly a kite, research your family heritage and track down your ancestors, find shapes in the clouds, or play in the sprinklers.
I know, changing the tech environment is easier said than done. I have to constantly “get back on the wagon” once I notice that I’ve started bringing my iPad to bed, or we’ve started watching TV every night, etc. Just dust yourself off and try again! I hope you’ve found this 3-part series helpful. Please comment or email me about your experiences trying these techniques out and any experiences you had from initiating conversations in Part 2. Remember, usually kids (and adults) are irritable or even down-right angry with less tech, and then they start to realize how great reality can be. Let’s take the time to be mindful of how we as a culture raise our children and teach them about themselves, their identities, their relationships, and their sexuality. They deserve better! We can raise sex-savvy kids!
Photo Source: Dollar Photo Club