Updated: Mar 17, 2022
Safety for children in our digital world is a concern many parents ask for help with. To be clear, the digital world includes things like smart TVs, video games, tablets, and phones. All of these devices can access the Internet, which opens a Pandora’s box of harmful content to children. However, learning how to use these devices safely is a skill kids need before they turn 18.
The average age a child is first exposed to pornography is 9.66 for girls and 9.95 for boys. (Bentley, Lacy - 2016 - Gender & Childhood Pornography Exposure, Addiction/Brain Science)That means half of all children are being exposed to pornography before they are even ten.However, kids are usually exposed to pornography by accident, not on purpose. Studies show that 62% or more of children are first exposed to pornography while doing homework or some other accidental reason. (British Board of Film Classification, August 2019) Here are a couple of recent quotes to demonstrate this:
“Families say their kids were supposed to be using district-issued computers for schoolwork, but instead, kids were looking at pornography.”
(Josh Rosenthal, Nov 24, 2020 - Fox 5 News, Washington DC, https://www.fox5dc.com/news/montgomery-county-students-exposed-to-porn-on-school-is-laptops)
“One minute a child could be looking at their favorite toy [online] and the next thing you know there’s porn on the screen.”
(Niki Whitaker, executive director at the Baldwin County Child Advocacy Center, Jan 26, 2021 - https://www.wkrg.com/health/coronavirus/news-5-investigates-online-risks-children-face-with-more-screen-time-during-pandemic/)
Parents are usually not aware when their children are exposed to porn. One study interviewed over 2,000 children and their parents in 2019 and the following was discovered. (British Board of Film Classification, Ibid)
Only 25% of parents believed their children had seen porn but 53% of these parent’s children reported that they had seen porn.
60% of parents said they had discussed pornography with their children but almost none of the children said their parents had talked to them about the dangers of pornography.
Fathers are more likely than mothers to think their children had seen pornography. 34% of fathers thought their children had probably seen pornography but only 19% of mothers believed that might be true.
Things to Consider
It is unfair to expect a child to manage digital technology in a safe manner without significant help from parents. A child will not know what to do to avoid exposure to porn or what to do if they are exposed to porn without being taught.
Children have a harder time resisting porn than adults. A child’s sex drive grows to adult levels within two years after puberty but the part of their brain that helps them control their sex drive will not mature until their mid twenties. Expecting a child to resist pornography while at the same time having unrestricted access to smart TVs, video games, tablets, and smartphones is asking more than children are capable of.
Here are a few suggestions to help kids have a safer experience.
Less screen time is better for all of us, children in particular. Here are some guidelines from the Mayo Clinic. (Mayo Clinic, Health & Lifestyle, Children’s Health, Screen Time and Children: How to Guide Your Child. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/screen-time/art-20047952)
Age 18 months and under: media use is discouraged, except for video chatting
Ages 18-24 months: if screens are allowed, no solo watching and only high quality content
Ages 2-5: limit screen time to one hour per day
Ages 6+: no more than two hours using any kind of screen per day, except while doing school work
I know this is hard. Most kids spend way more than two hours a day on screens, and thinking about reducing that time feels daunting. You probably know what it is like to have a kid melt down when you ask them to stop playing a video game or using a tablet. But an angry reaction to being asked to rejoin the real world should be a warning sign that kids are getting too dependent on the artificial, digital world.
Kids view the digital world as the real world. That is where many kids interact with their friends. It takes more work on your part, but helping your kids meet and spend time face-to-face with other kids is much better for their mental health. Limiting screen time is about much more than avoiding pornography.
When to Give a Child a Device
I’ve talked with a lot of professionals and my personal recommendation to parents is not to give a child their own Internet device until they are at least 14. Before you think I’m too restrictive, consider that the men who created this digital world did the same with their kids. Bill Gates did not allow his children to have cell phones until they were 14 and he strictly limited screen time for them until they were 17.
Steve Jobs prohibited his kids from using an iPad at all before age 18, even though he helped create it. (Chris Weller, “Bill Gates & Steve Jobs Raised Their Kids Tech-Free”, Business Insider, Oct 24, 2017) These men know more than you or I ever will about the digital world and look at what they considered critical for their own kids!
Alternatives to SmartPhones
That does not mean your kids cannot have a phone until 14, however. Today there are several companies that make devices that look like smartphones and smartwatches that have a camera, music, calculator, text service, and a phone, but absolutely no Internet access or ability to host apps. Some of these are better for younger kids and others have things like a map feature that young teens might want.
Rather than take up space here, I will point interested parents to this very recent post that compares these devices to help you decide what might be the best fit for your younger kids.
When it is Time for a SmartPhone
While you want to delay giving a child a smartphone it is best that your child learn how to manage a real smartphone before they leave home. You will have to decide when to allow them to have one as each child is different, but somewhere between the ages of 14 and 18 they need to learn how to use a smartphone safely.
This means locking the phone down at first so your kid cannot add apps on their own. Use something like the Bark app (bark.us) to see how well your child handles being online before allowing them to choose an app. When they are able to go a couple of months without misusing the Internet, allow them to select one app to start with.
When it is time to let them have one app, visit https://protectyoungeyes.com so that you are aware of the potential dangers of the app your child wants. This organization specializes in monitoring what all apps that children might use do and where the pitfalls are.
Other Ways Kids Access the Internet
Children access the Internet through other devices as well. In addition to computers, any smart TV and most video game consoles will allow the user to surf the web. It is smart to have monitoring software, such as Bark or CovenantEyes, on devices that allow them, but no software can monitor all these kinds of devices. If you want to monitor all Internet activity happening in your home you need something that operates from the home router.
I won’t take time here to explain how that works, but one solution is RouterLimits, which is a device you plug into your home router that monitors all Internet activity using your home WIFI network. That would include visitors to your home who you let use your WIFI.
Router Limits can also be used to restrict what times people can access the Internet. This means you could shut the Internet down in your home at night, in case kids try to use the Internet behind your back.
To learn more, visit: https://routerlimits.com
Prevention Science has clearly demonstrated that the three most important things to protect your child from getting involved with pornography (or any other harmful behavior for that matter) are parent-child bonding, healthy beliefs, and clear standards. In addition to bonding with your children and sharing your beliefs, you need to set very clear standards around Internet use in your home.
Here are a few family rules you might consider:
All devices belong to parents, not the children. Internet capable devices are powerful and can be used for great good, but also are capable of causing great harm. For this reason parents are the custodian of them until the child is 18. Children can use them as long as they are using them for good purposes.
No digital devices in bedrooms or bathrooms or behind closed doors. Family is a place to be transparent and without secrets, so no one hides what they do on digital devices. Bathrooms and bedrooms are places where temptation to look at things like pornography is simply too high, so for protection we do not use devices in those places. This does include no TV in a child’s bedroom.
No digital devices after bedtime.If nothing else, access to devices at night prevents us from sleeping. For example, staying up late texting friends hurts sleep. I suggest leaving all digital devices in the family room or other public place at night.
Digital device use is not private.For one thing, your kids need to know that everything they do online is tracked by multiple organizations. There is actually no such thing as online privacy, no matter what computer and phone companies say. In addition, family is not a place to have secrets. Monitoring what members of your family do online is not a breach of privacy, it is keeping everyone safe and helping each other get back on track if anyone strays.
It is very important to note that any rules for children should apply to parents. If your kids don’t take their phones to bed, neither do you. If your child’s Internet history is monitored, so are the Internet histories of parents. I know this creates inconvenience, but there are two very big benefits of doing this:
Your child will be much more willing to comply if they see you have to comply as well. Digital safety becomes a family value, not just rules that parents ignore but kids have to obey.
Parents need help too. If you know your kids can see your Internet history you are much more likely to make better choices online than if your Internet use was secret.
This is a lot to think about! I would imagine that some of the ideas I am suggesting seem too hard or would require making a lot of adjustments for you, personally. So, rather than suggest you do all of these things, I have a simpler challenge for you.
Look through the Things to Consider again, and find one thing you would be willing to try. Just one. Even taking one of these steps will increase digital safety for your children. In fact, if your children can read well, have them join you in selecting one to start with!
This is not too hard, especially if you start with just one change. You can do this. Your children are in the right home, and you are the right parent to help them experience safety in the digital world.