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My 9 yr-old daughter watched porn

Published: 08 Jul 2015
My 9 yr-old daughter watched porn

Dear Dr Justin,

I have two daughters, one nine and the other 13, both happy and well-adjusted who are doing well at school. I am interstate a lot because of work, and one night when I was away my wife discovered the younger one looking at inappropriate websites (people having sex). She was horrified and my daughter was very embarrassed when found out. We have now taken the computer away from her bedroom and make her use it where we can see what she is looking at.

What should I say to my daughter?

This is so out of character for her I don’t know what to do. She is highly intelligent and goes to a good school. Am I to blame because I am away so much?

Dr Justin responds:

The scourge of Internet pornography is fast becoming one of the modern parent’s biggest challenges. Not only are we desperately attempting to monitor and minimise device usage, but we are having to be incredibly vigilant about what our children are being exposed to. There are practical things we can do to minimise risks, and there are more involved things we must also do. Let’s consider them.

Practical ways to keep kids safe

Computer zones: Most experts will agree that ensuring devices stay out of bedrooms, bathrooms, and other private spaces (red zones) and are only used in public spaces (green zones) will reduce the likelihood that children will get into trouble.

Security: If you have a pool, a fence is mandatory. If you have the Internet, it is just as important to put a fence around what your children can access. There are many products available for devices. This is ideal because while most modems will provide a level of protection, once your child is streaming from a different source, the modem protection is gone.

Supervision: Children should be aware that you, as their parent, will ‘shoulder-surf’. This means you’ll ‘cut-back’ to check on what they’re doing. You’ll do ‘re-entries’ to the room they’re web-surfing in to monitor their online activity. You might also consider whether online access is even allowed if you are not present.

Connect: Without being intrusive, it is useful to be connected to your child’s social media account. This increases your ability to monitor (not spy or stalk), and see what they’re up to.

Follow Guidelines: It is so important that parents no allow their children access to sites and media before the appropriate age. Facebook, instagram and twitter are all 13+. Kik is 17+. Apps like Tinder, tumblr, and even those I’ve already mentioned pose genuine dangers, and young children are particularly vulnerable. Just because ‘everyone else has it’ doesn’t make it ok.

Even with all of these strategies, children can still experience pornography and other harmful online content or relationships. We simply cannot monitor everything, and even the best security won’t keep our children safe if a neighbour, or a friend at school or on the bus has access to the Internet without similar levels of security.

The Conversations

It is because we cannot control everything that the conversations need to start early (around grade 3 seems to be the necessary starting point in today’s world) and happen regularly. And what do you talk about?

Tracking: Children should be aware that their online movements can be tracked, and that you will be doing some of that tracking.

Digital Reputation: Children should understand that their online exposure and sharing of material affects how people see them – their digital (and offline) reputation.

Content: In age-appropriate ways, we should be asking our children if their friends are looking at inappropriate things online. To start those difficult conversations, say “Mum and I want to chat with you about a pretty difficult topic. Is that ok?”

It is surprising how often our children say ‘yes’. When they know they’re safe, and they know you care and will listen, it is easier for them to talk about difficult things. In fact, most children really want to have these discussions and are open to it in the right time and place, and with the right approach.

The key is to start talking. A lot. In the car. At the park. Get your child’s permission, and bring the whole family in on it. Help each other. Be an example.

Danger Signs

If your child is:

  • using a private browsing mode
  • minimising or closing windows when you enter a room
  • deleting history
  • being unusually private when online

then it is time to have these discussions and set these rules.

What do you do now?

While it’s typical to want to ban her from everything, to do so would be a mistake. Such a response diminishes trust, promotes sneakiness, increases the sense that pornography is a ‘forbidden fruit’, and ultimately ignores the reasons this behaviour began.

Instead, do a lot of listening. How did she find out about it? What was she looking for? How did it make her feel? How does she think you feel about it? Finally, ask her what she thinks is the best way forward from here.

If her answers are satisfactory, great! If not, talk through alternative possibilities. Explain why you are concerned. Provide clear reasons for your requests. Problem solve together. And minimise the use of controlling techniques, because typically they backfire.

We all want to protect our children. Some of these tips will help. But if they have been burned, our debrief and explanations, and a collaborative, problem-solving approach tend to be the best way forward.

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