Not Your Father's Playboy
Keeping kids safe with technology.
Posted Apr 14, 2020
As a child and family psychiatrist, I am often asked about technology and how it impacts families and children. Technology has totally changed the way families create and enforce rules in the home. Now that children and teens have instant access to an endless stream of information with their smartphones, they have become really difficult to monitor.
Children are often outfoxed by their parents. But some parents really do not know how to set up parental controls correctly. And families are spending much less “quality time” together. One thing that parents may not be thinking about, but really should, is pornography.
Fifty percent of parents (half!) underestimate how much pornography their child has seen. And this is not your mother's pornography. For most parents, the extent of available “explicit materials” used to be that we would read The Joy of Sex, that 70’s book probably left in the attic. Or maybe you find your father’s old nudie magazines in some closet. There was a simplicity to those images — women in sexy clothing or bare-breasted. With that background, it is easy for us to underestimate the risks of today’s porn. For comparison, it's similar to how drugs have evolved. Today’s marijuana is stronger than what was being smoked in the 1960s, and more easily available. And modern pornography is free, and can more easily be stumbled upon. Children and teens can write something as simple as “boobs” into a browser, and the results are designed to get them hooked from the start.
A high percentage of free pornography video clips portray violent or degrading images of women. When boys view such porn for long periods of time, they may become more likely to commit verbal or physical aggression themselves, regardless of age. Allowing a child unrestricted access to the web, then, can have serious consequences. For boys, studies show, exposure can cause lifelong changes in perceptions of sexuality. Specifically, it fosters a presumption that less common sexual practices (S+M, etc.) are popular. It also trivializes rape as a criminal offense, promotes insensitivity toward victims of sexual violence, and promotes men’s beliefs that they would be capable of committing rape.
For both boys and girls, watching pornography may breed discontent with their physical appearance, and the sexual performance of both themselves and their future intimate partners. Before at least age 10, most children cannot comprehend that pornography is a fantasy. In the earliest years, a child may not even react. However, many children find pornographic images or videos to be upsetting or confusing if they are accidentally exposed to them. Sex may look like violence to young children, for example, and it is not easy to explain the difference.
I prefer tight control over the possibility of accessing inappropriate content during these years. In early childhood and the tween years, pornography can have a negative impact on how children view sex. Parents should feel no shame about peering over their child’s shoulder sometimes when they are on their devices and asking what they are watching. You should ask your child what they have been shown by friends, and whether other parents monitor them.
What many parents do not realize is how technology can affect children’s emotional and psychological well being. “On average, 8-to-12-year-olds use just under five hours’ worth of screen media per day, and teens use an average of just under seven-and-a-half hours’ worth—not including time spent using screens for school or homework."1 2 To me, this is a shocking amount of time to spend glued to a device. I have seen children get hooked to screens and become irritable and angry when asked to put them down. For example, some children will only eat when a screen is playing. This impedes connections and relationships, and the bonding that needs to happen in childhood.
What do we do about it? I recommend the following tips for setting guidelines or rules for technology.
- Install parental controls—good ones like Qustodio. The existing controls that come pre-installed on most phones will not suffice. the better apps will monitor all your children’s devices and give you weekly reports as to what they are viewing. They'll also allow you to switch off the device remotely after a certain time (e.g. 9:30 pm) so kids can get some sleep.
- Use the technology as a reward, not as a right. It is a privilege to own a smartphone. Qustodio can allow a child to use a smartphone as a phone for emergencies and only switch on the fun stuff after their homework is done and chores are completed.
- Family meals should be sacred time with no devices are allowed; that goes for parents, too! I suggest parents come up with fun, routine mealtime practices, like gratitude shares (e.g. 5 things you were grateful for today), or coming up with a high and low of the day. Creating family rituals can also give a child a sense of belonging and raise self-esteem. (Learn more here.)
- Speak to your children about pornography. Research suggests that parents address it directly and head-on with children. There are many great resources and videos you can watch with your kids.
If you follow these tips, you will be more likely to maintain open communication with your kids, reduce harm, and create more connectivity within the family overall.
1 Pew Research Center, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” May 2018.
2 Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. www.commonsensemedia.org