Filter a child from online porn? Stop worrying

A columnist in my local newspaper recently lamented about the difficulty in “protecting” her child from online pornography. Her child wasn’t searching for the stuff, she explains. But porn is so pervasive in everyday media, that you needn’t search for it to be saturated with it. Not just the subtle innuendo of marketing & commerce—but the hard core variety and even the illegal variety. It appears in many web searches and it is often marketed in a deceptive manner designed to appear across all venues.

The idea of a child coming across something for which they lack context, experience and the curiosity that grows with hormones is disturbing. A common reaction is to shriek, shut off the screen or become hysterical. But what really works? I have an unorthodox approach to the issue of online safety and brief exposure to sexual imagery…

Today, I was contacted by a porn-filtering organization that seeks my endorsement. Like spam filters (a necessary technology) they offer a technical approach to the problem. Of course, they don’t condemn my approach (it’s called parenting), but they claim that an electronic babysitter (I call it a censor) will block exposure to horrific content: Apparently, the potential exposure of a child or preteen to any image of a naked adult fits their definition of “horrific”.

I say, “Why bother?!” Exactly what is the goal of this shield? Will it protect your child’s values, chastity or save her from nightmares? In my opinion, it defeats all of these goals. And so, here is my response to the founder of a porn filtering vendor…
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Hi Martin. On your web page for My Porn Blocker, you say:

“One day while at the dinner table my 7 year old daughter
asked me why some people are naked on the computer.
My wife and I nearly fell out of our chairs.”

Additionally, your marketing video begins with a description of your “horror” in finding a racy web site on your son’s PC.

I also have a young daughter and, of course, she occasionally comes across online pornography. After all, it is pervasive – and clearly – it is important to many adults

A naked human. I’m ruined for life!

(either the soft core type used for marketing, or the hard-core material that is a market unto itself). That’s why there is so much of it.

While I respect your desire to shield children from material you find offen-sive or contrary to your values, I am puzzled by parents seeking technical help in filtering what children see on the internet or in media. The answer is parenting. Of course, porn will continue to pop-up, even if you surf the web with your child. But consider a more thoughtful response to her curiosity. Why not answer truthfully and in a manner that is age appropriate?

  • Mommy! Why are there so many naked people on the internet?

There are many photos like these, because some adults like to view naked people. The world is filled with all sorts of different people. They have many different preferences – and viewing naked people is something that lots of people seem to enjoy.

  • What is this person doing? It looks painful!

No—They are not in pain. In fact, they are either having a lot of fun, or they are actors pretending to do these things. In either case, they are doing things that you are not ready for—both physically: it would hurt, and emotionally: you need to develop other types of relationships before you play the adult games shown in these pictures.

Some photos are patently offensive, I won’t fault you for closing a sexy or violent web page before answering. But make no mistake: It is you who cannot handle the momentary exposure of off-topic content–and not her. As you move on to other web pages, you will be surprised by the maturity with which your child accepts an age-appropriate response.

Will she ask friends at school about the lewd photos? Of course! That’s life. Discussion is a healthy response to anything that is unexpected or shocking. But if you are consistent, loving and non-hysterical, your daughter will assess all available information through the lens of a consistent upbringing and shared family values.

We have used this approach with our child since she was 4. Since the age of 8, she has owned her own PC. We allow her to surf the web unattended. Although we don’t overtly monitor activity, the computer is in an open location. We have never felt it necessary to log and track the web sites that she visits – and we certainly don’t user filters.

Are we fooling ourselves? I doubt it. By 6 or 7, she was aware that sex is fun for adults and culturally pervasive. She knows that older teens talk about it frequently and she is peripherally aware that adults have individual, unique and sometimes very odd predilections. That is, they engage in a broad & seemingly bizarre array of behavior. Most kids figure this out because they listen to adults and because they are not blind to web sites & films that allude to unusual fetishes.

Should you care? I certainly don’t lose any sleep. My daughter will make up her mind about these things when her hormones and values tell her that it is time to explore. And even at 8 and 9, she realized this. As parents, we guide her to make the right decisions with our experience and insight, rather than attempt to censor web sites.

Prior to that time, I am convinced that shielding children from accidental exposure to porn is both futile and counterproductive. Of course, the parents are shocked—but for a young child, porn lacks the prurient stimulus that it has for adults. It may prompt occasional questions or discussion with peers, but this is not a bad thing! Believe it or not, a consistent message at home will trump the input from a few dissenting peers.

I typically end these personal pearls of advice with the glib and über confident tag line: “So sayeth Ellery”…but not today. I realize that, like Martin, many WildDucks want to control their children and reinforce values by blocking content. For what it’s worth, you now have another side to this story. That’s my 2¢.