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Parents, Cyber-Sex, and Children

The shocking things kids discover about their parent's social media.

by guest blogger Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D.

  • A father forgot to log out of the family PC and his 13-year-old daughter mistakenly found pornography under his username.
  • A 17-year-old’s camera was broken on her phone, so she took a picture and texted it to her father to check out the picture quality. She shockingly found nude pictures of him on his phone, along with other nude pictures of a strange woman whom she didn’t know.
  • A 22-year-old went on his mother’s Facebook messenger to look for a prior message and found sexually explicit messages to a man she dated in college and evidently visited very recently.

Adjusted for privacy, these are just some of the stories reported to me over the past year. You may be thinking, what is a kid or teen doing on their parent’s social media? Were they granted permission to venture there or are they prying? The honest truth is that kids will always be curious about their parents; that’s not going away. Remember how another generation poked around for Dad’s Playboy? It is up to parents to provide innocence to their children to grow up unhindered by adult issues.

We have a real problem, and it exceeds by many magnitudes the issue of Dad’s Playboy: The plain truth is that explicit content on parent’s social media detrimentally impacts children, often injuring the parent-child relationship.

Children deserve their innocence.

How Kids and Parents Respond

Whether their parent is married, partnered with someone, or single, kids still feel awkward about addressing what they saw directly with their parent. They often talk about the visual that they can’t readily “get out of their mind.” If there is a spouse or partner involved, they additionally feel in the middle of the betrayal, and feel responsible for the potential consequences of the “reveal” — especially if it results in a separation or divorce.

I have had the experience of meeting with kids who confronted their parents independently and those that I have helped guide directly in the process with either one of both parents being present.

There’s an array of responses by parents:

Inevitably kids discuss their exasperation with what they perceive to be a double standard around social media rules and restrictions, impulse control, and family loyalty.

The Danger of Your Smartphone

Porn sites are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the smart phone a potentially dangerous weapon when sexually explicit texts and photos find their way to children. By now, we’ve all heard about how provocative parental texts inadvertently get sent to their children — instead of to the partner or lover for whom it was intended.

As yet, we lack a robust literature about parental misuse of social media. Most pieces focus on parent’s infidelity in general. One Youtube video, for instance, features errant parental texts sent to their children that are intended for their spouse, partner, or lover, humorously followed by parents bribing their children into secrecy with all sorts of luxury items and such. It’s funny and sad. So now that we understand that cyber-eroticism can take many forms, how does this behavior affect kids, and how can we best protect them?

There are multiple ways in which these discoveries can impact children. According to Ana Nogales, who researches and wrote the book, Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful, out of 800 adult children of parents who had an extramarital affair, 75 percent felt betrayed by their cheating parent, 80 percent said it affected their attitude toward love and relationships, and 70 percent said they believed it impacted their ability to trust others.

Naturally, these factors are impacted by how old the kids are when they find out, the extent of the indiscretions, how the parents independently and collaboratively handle it, whether the parent ends up being with or living with the lover, etc.

Lessons to Learn

Cyber-Eroticism is embedded in the nature of the internet. Years ago, Al Cooper wrote a book, Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force. He outlined how the three A’s made online sexuality so compelling – Anonymity, Affordability and Access. He argued that the medium itself encourages eroticism, and I believe that trend continues to grow. Your smart phone, PC, or tablet can become, in an instant, a platform of exposure. You may think you have privacy or anonymity, but it can all go away with one click of the mouse, one errant text, or one nosy child.

Parents' indiscretions are inadvertently being showcased on social media. Just as we expect our children to be mindful of their social media use, we need to abide by these rules as well.

It can’t ever be overstated: Once it’s out there, we can never take it back.

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R is the President/Clinical Director of Westchester Group Works, a Center for Group Therapy in Harrison, NY, and maintains a private practice. She is co-founder and Clinical Director of Thru My Eyes foundation, and the author of Free Your Child From Overeating - 53 Mind/Body Strategies For Lifelong Health.