Online porn and our kids: It’s time for an uncomfortable conversation

Children viewing endless, sexually explicit, violent material shouldn’t be inevitable

As a parent, it is hard not to wonder exactly what you’re doing when you put a smartphone into your child’s hands for the first time. Photograph: iStock

As a parent, it is hard not to wonder exactly what you’re doing when you put a smartphone into your child’s hands for the first time. Photograph: iStock

 

This isn’t going to be easy Saturday morning reading. These are things that are difficult to talk about, difficult to think about.

The boy was 14 years old when his mother walked into her sitting room to find him abusing his younger sister. She was eight. He was copying things he had seen on Pornhub, he would later tell gardaí.

At the Central Criminal Court earlier this year, the now 16-year-old pleaded guilty to five counts of oral rape and 44 counts of sexual assault of his half-sister. He was ordered by Mr Justice Michael White to live away from his mother’s home as part of a suspended sentence.

Earlier this month, another case was before the same judge involving a child sexually exploiting other children. This time, the accused boy told gardaí he “became obsessed with sex”. His lawyers said he had begun looking at porn online “at a very young age”.

This case, the judge said, was the fourth he had personally dealt with, in which “young children have committed the most serious offences”, starting with “exposure to pornography on smartphones”.

“It is very serious and a matter of great concern,” he said. The kind of offending the court is seeing “goes way beyond consensual sexual experimentation”.

As a parent, it is hard not to wonder exactly what you’re doing when you put their own smartphone into your adolescent’s hands for the first time.

Fabian Thylmann isn’t exactly a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. He’s not a household name. But he’s arguably having an even more profound impact on the lives of our children. In 2007, the reclusive engineer brought the world what it hadn’t yet realised it desperately wanted: free streaming porn.

Social costs

In 2017, the journalist Jon Ronson outlined some of the social costs of this then decade-old experiment in his brilliant podcast series, The Butterfly Effect. Erectile dysfunction in young men, he found, was up by 1,000 per cent since Thylmann introduced free streaming porn. In one episode, he interviews an autistic boy who tried to interact with a girl he liked by texting her things he’d heard men say in porn videos. It didn’t go well: the boy ended up on the sex offenders’ list.

Today, many counsellors and psychologists have similar stories of children who mistook porn for real life, with catastrophic results. 

So what are parents to do? Some try to hold back the tide, and refuse to give into smartphones for as long as possible. My 13-year-old has an old-fashioned Nokia brick.

The rest fall roughly into two groups, divided along either side of what researchers in the US call the “parental naivety gap”. On one side are the ones who give their child a smartphone after their confirmation, and try not to think too much about what they might do with it. My child wouldn’t, they say optimistically. I know my son. My daughter’s not like that. He wouldn’t. She won’t.

On the other are those who take a more pragmatic approach. They don’t love the idea of their children accessing porn, but they’re not sure there’s much they can do about it. So they hand the phone over, install the parental control filters that they know their children will figure out a way around, and save the pin code. Porn, they shrug in private conversations with their friends, is inevitable. It’s part of growing up.

But here’s the thing. Sexual curiosity is normal. Children being eager to find out what all the fuss is about is normal. But children viewing endless, sexually explicit, and often violent, material shouldn’t be inevitable. And in our efforts to be realistic and grown-up about this, we may be in danger of normalising something that is not normal.

Self-regulation

Tánaiste Simon Coveney recently said the ease of access to online pornography was “a worry for every parent in the country”. “The days of self-regulation of the internet is over,” he added, leading to suggestions that Ireland might move to block unrestricted access to porn, as the UK is attempting to do.

Some experts believe it’s too late to turn back the tide of free streaming porn; there is, they say, no technological solution capable of stopping what Fabian Thylmann started.

But it isn’t too late to have uncomfortable conversations with our children about the messages they get from porn: such as the message that all women are always available for sex at all times with any man. That women like men who are forceful or even violent. That “no” often means “yes”.

Now when we talk about sex, we need to talk about porn, respect, consent, sexuality, body image and boundaries. We don’t need to terrify them into believing watching porn will ruin their lives, destroy their relationships and warp their libidos, maybe, but we do need to talk about it.

It sometimes feels as though, lured by the promise of (convenience? Security? Connectivity? A quiet life? Not having to say “no” when every other parent in your circle is saying “yes”? All of the above?) we have unthinkingly signed our children up to a social experiment. And we’re only beginning to witness what happens what the experiment goes horribly, unimaginably wrong.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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