Protecting your grandchildren online

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Monday June 17, 2013

Published June 2013, Mature Lifestyles

Dear Ginger

My grandchildren will be spending part of their summer vacation with us. I am feeling a little frightened because I just read a report saying children are accessing pornography on the Internet. I guess I knew this was inevitable, but I had never really thought about how I could help keep them safe when I’m in charge of them. Do you have any suggestions? They are nine, 11, and 14, and the oldest two are constantly playing on their hand-held computer things. Edgar

Dear Edgar,

Yours is a great question and one about which many grandparents, as well as parents, educators, and health care providers, are very concerned. The report I think you are referencing, called the Bitdefender Report, came out about the middle of May. Based in Bucharest, the Bitdefender study says children as young as six years old are watching porn online and engaging in many activities formerly thought to be adult behavior at ages much younger than even a few years ago. The study reports that one-fourth of kids aged 12 had social network profiles and were lying about their ages since such networks are limited to people age 13 and over.

Since probably the beginning of time, children have lied and wheedled to enable themselves to do adult-like behaviors – like underage alcohol and tobacco use, driving before being eligible for a license, seeking out sexually graphic images, and otherwise trying to grow up too soon. Probably you did something yourself, Edgar, but in general there was not as great a concern then as now. While children of our era may have seen explicit movies or photos, by today’s standards most of those images were what we would call “soft porn” today. With an Internet connection and a few clicks of a mouse, an unsupervised child can view activities that go beyond what many of us elders have ever seen. In addition, they can interact online with so-called live participants, and they can create their own version of an erotic scene.

Children are naturally curious about sex, and they are aroused to these images. Most of them, especially younger children, do not have the ability to discriminate much less process what is healthy and not so healthy. In addition, today’s children are at far greater risk of meeting a predator in a chat room, and then perhaps also in person, and of participating in unsavory online behaviors that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Mental health providers frequently see teens and adults whose lives are in shambles because of behaviors that have sexual connotations. Among our patients are both victims and offenders of rape, including date rape; sexual trauma and molestation; sexually over-restrictive (anorexic) or unlimited (addictive) behaviors; addictions to porn; and the list goes on. Not all of these patients have histories of porn use in childhood and adolescence, but many do or in the case of victims, many of their perpetrators have been involved in repetitive porn use, often from an early age and many times provided by, or at least not regulated by, a parent. From my experiences treating hundreds of such persons over 25 years of practice, I am quite sure that viewing porn at too early an age has serious consequences.

Within the field of human sexuality and behavior, there is an ongoing disagreement about the role – positive as well as negative – of porn. Writing on his blog, Dr. Kenneth M. Adams, a sex addiction therapist, says, “Porn use contributes to a failure to bond as opposed to enhancing it” (“Porn Studies,” May 15, 2013). In the same post, he mentions that an upcoming academic and clinical journal, Porn Studies, is reported to be “biased towards viewing porn as overly positive.”

So, Edgar, what is a grandparent to do? First, be ready to discuss rules for computer use (both yours and their devices) within your home and whenever the grandkids are under your responsibility. Seek an understanding from their parents about how computer and Internet safety is regulated in their own home, and then either continue that plan, if you agree it’s safe enough, or implement a different one of your own. It is important to have this plan formulated before they arrive – preferably in writing and signed onto by the parents, by you, and by each grandchild. The policy needs to be exact about what is permitted and what is not, and especially to detail the consequences of crossing a boundary.

Second, if anything at all concerns you about the content of their computer use – or even cable television – be prepared to speak up immediately. On a summer visit from my grandsons, when they were about the ages of your three, they had been given permission to watch TV in their own quarters. We only have basic cable programming, and I felt comfortable with the content they would access.

When I walked in on a Cartoon Network adult comedy in which herpes and orgasms were being discussed by the cartoon characters, I was stunned. Whenever something is shocking to me, my method has always been to sit down and watch with the kids, and then engage them in discussion about the content. (I cannot remember how many times I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” when my own children were growing up). Keeping my cool, I asked the older two if they thought what they had just seen was appropriate for the younger one. The then 11-year-old told me,” Oh, yeah, Grandma, we had all that in sex education at school last year.” The younger one replied that he had been bored so he had just decided to tune out and to build a bridge with the old-fashioned wood blocks I had kept from his parent’s youth.

I let my breath out and called their mother to let her know. She said they probably see and hear worse from their friends on a daily basis and not to worry, but it certainly kept my vigilance a little tighter for the rest of the visit. I am glad you are thinking ahead about this potential problem. Having a plan and staying on your toes are probably your two most important tactics, Edgar.



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