Just two clicks away from danger

Tue, Jun 12, 2012, 01:00

JOHN SHARRYanswers readers' questions

Q

We have a family PC in the living room and the children use it for homework and games and we always supervise their use. Reviewing the history the other day I discovered that my eldest son who is 11 years old was looking at adult sites – when he put in the term “sex” in Google.

He must have been doing it when we were briefly out of the room. I was a little shocked because he is so young. I confronted him about it and he was so mortified that he couldn’t speak about it.

Now I wonder if I handled it wrong as I got a bit angry with him. Should I raise it with him again? My husband says we should just leave it as he is too embarrassed. He does know all about the facts of life and we have already had this conversation with him.

A

With children and young people increasingly using the internet, they are now exposed to all the inherent dangers as well as the potential benefits. Children accessing pornography or other inappropriate material on the internet is a growing problem and most surveys report this to be on the increase.

Some children can access the material accidentally, for example keying in an innocent term in a search engine, only to be returned some inappropriate websites. Other children, acting on a natural curiosity, may search for sexually related material on the internet and then access far more explicit material than is appropriate.

A lot of the problems stem from the amount of pornographic and sexually explicit material on the internet – at any time a child is simply two clicks away from a veritable Pandora’s Box of unsuitable material.

Naturally, the age of the child is a significant factor. Whatever you feel about it morally, it is relatively commonplace for older teenagers and young adults to view pornography and adult material on the internet.

However, it not appropriate for children and young teenagers to do so, as such material can be disturbing and harmful to them. For this reason, your goal as a parent is to protect them for as long as possible from accessing this material. In a similar way to adult themed movies, your job as a parent is to act as a censor and to delay their access until they are old enough to deal with it and to make their own choices about viewing it.

There are many different sensible steps that parents can take to protect their children and young teenagers from inappropriate material on the internet. Simple steps such as supervising access to the internet, only allowing computer use in the living room and installing family software on the computer can help but, as you have discovered, none of these can offer full protection. Most of the software packages are not 100 per cent foolproof, and it is almost impossible to always be there supervising their usage all of the time, especially as they get older. As a result, you also need to sit down and discuss the problem with them, to explain the dangers of the internet to them and to explore safety strategies with them.

In the long term you want to help them learn to keep themselves safe and to make their own informed decisions about what they view on the internet.

In your own situation, I think it is worth having a second conversation with your son about what happened. You don’t want him feeling ashamed or mortified to be the last feeling he has about what happened.

It is important to acknowledge with him that his interest in sex is perfectly normal at his age but that you don’t want him finding out about this by accessing inappropriate sites on the internet.

Pick a good time to chat and raise the subject neutrally. Explain to him that you are not annoyed with him, and that you want to chat more about the internet with him. If possible, try to engage him in some conversation about what happened. How did he come across the sites? What did he see on them? What did he think?

Acknowledge how it is normal to be interested in sex and to be drawn to sexual pictures and images, but also explain how they can be upsetting to view and are inappropriate at a young age. Use the conversation as an opportunity to communicate your values about sex and love, about how the pictures paint an unrealistic view of relationships, and so on.

Check in with him about what he understands about sex and relationships and discuss with him the dangers of the internet, etc. This is, of course, a very delicate conversation to get right with an adolescent who might be very embarrassed by the subject but I think it is important that you try to have it with him.

Even if he does not say much, and you do most of the talking, if he gets the message that you understand him and that he can talk to you again, then this is successful. A lot of parents wonder if this conversation is best between father and son. While it is helpful if his father, who knows what it is like to be an adolescent boy, talks to him, it is also helpful that you as his mother, who can present a complementary woman’s perspective, talk to him as well.

For this reason, I would suggest that both you and your husband raise the subject with him separately at some point in the future so he has access to two sides of the story. It will help him a lot if he receives a positive understanding message from both of you.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and pyschotherapist and director of ParentsPlus charity. His website is solutiontalk.ie.

Readers’ queries are welcome and will be answered through the column, but John regrets that he cannot enter into individual correspondence. Questions should be emailed to healthsupplement@irishtimes.com