Date: July 1, 2012
If your child spends unsupervised time online, chances are he or she has encountered content that maybe considered "adult." Despite parental efforts, provocative sexual material is readily available, not only from websites that specialize in pornography, but also in music, videos, TV sitcoms, advertisements and even smartphone apps.
As a parent, your first impulse could be the equivalent of putting your hand over your child's eyes, but that is, at best, a temporary measure. Instead, figure out how to help your child develop healthy attitudes about sexuality despite the prevalence of unhealthy images. Here are some suggestions:
Take a deep breath.
According to experts, exposure to sexual material is not necessarily traumatic. The trauma occurs when parents overreact, making a child feel ashamed or even deviant. You are more likely to have a calm conversation if you prepare yourself by talking with other parents and doing a little reading. (A helpful list of websites, organized by developmental stage, is available at answer.rutgers.edu/page/websites.)
Point out the good stuff.
Kids often are interested in sexually explicit materials because they want information about what bodies look like and how they fit together. Point out websites that provide frank, accurate and reliable content. Kidshealth.org provides authoritative answers to common preteen questions in the "Sexual Health" section of its "Teen" portal. Information suitable for older teens is available at iwannaknow.org and sexetc.org.
Differentiate between sex and pornography.
Sex is an utterly natural part of adult life. Pornography is ... well, there's no single message about pornography because the word is used to describe everything from pictures of naked people to violent depictions of criminal acts. For young children, the best strategy is to say that you're going to install filters that will block inappropriate content. (Free filters for computers and cellphones are available at k9webprotection.com.)
Once children hit puberty, they deserve more nuanced conversations about explicit sexual images. Instead of labeling them "bad," you can talk about how adults have different opinions about pornography. Some see it as a form of fantasy and entertainment that should be freely available to adults; others believe pornography interferes with genuine intimacy by creating unreasonable expectations. Share your point of view and listen to what your child has to say.
Take a hard line on violence.
Exposure to violent sexual images is harmful to boys and girls. Parents should be consistent in limiting access to movies, video games and websites that feature sexual violence. Make it clear to both boys and girls that coercion should never be part of a sexual relationship.
Talk about feelings.
People who have satisfying sexual relationships are attuned to feelings — both their own and those of their partner. Parents can help kids become aware of their own emotions by regularly asking, "How does that make you feel?" Cultivate empathy by asking how other people, including the characters in a movie or the models in a photograph, might be feeling.
Perhaps the best way to inoculate your child from crass sexuality online and in the media is to nurture loving, positive, emotionally open relationships in your own home. Recent research from the Netherlands found that boys and girls who have strong connections with parents and friends are more likely to develop committed romantic relationships. That, of course, is the kind of relationship that is "adult" in the fullest and best sense of the word.
Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids and has been writing about technology and parenting for 10 years.