Tuesday, January 01, 2008

I've Waited a Long Time to Talk About This

But I didn't want to wait too long and forget, and while I don't have my thoughts completely together on the matter, in chatting with my friend Holly today, I realized that it doesn't really matter if I say this perfectly. It matters that I take the time to say it at all.

I'll begin with something I alluded to months ago. I want to be particularly sensitive about this as it is impossible to know who might read this or when, and I don't want to make a specific criticism as much as give you a warning.

Put plainly, I found porn on the laptop of the eleven-year-old girl I nannied. There were photos and video footage. It was explicit. I pulled her dad aside when she was not there and let him know what I found. He did his own investigation and found it on her desktop computer as well. He confronted her about it, she admitted to it and apologized, and parental controls were put on her computer. As far as I know, that's all that was done. But I'm not sure if it was enough. And I don't think she should have apologized because I don't think she did anything wrong. She was curious, but she felt uncomfortable asking anyone the questions she had, so she used Google to find answers. I think all of us who cared for her, both her parents and me, made some dangerous assumptions. They assumed she was too young to think to look for that sort of thing on the internet, and I assumed that because they were so careful to shield their children in other respects that parental controls were already in use. Because of the combination of those assumptions, an eleven-year-old saw graphic photos and video of all manner of sexual activity, the majority of which was inappropriate for her to view. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it is tantamount to abuse. I want to be clear here that I am not accusing anyone who cares for her of abuse, but I am saying that we allowed her to be alone in the room with sexual deviants and possible pedophiles. And while they did not have access to her physically, they did have access to her mind and her emotions. What she saw, she was not equipped to see. She simply wasn't ready. Honestly? I wasn't ready to see some of those images, and I'm an adult. I worry about how this early exposure to graphic photos and videos will affect her own understanding of what sex is and her emotional development as it relates to sexual issues. If she has questions about what she has seen, now that she's been reprimanded, will she shy away even more from asking someone she can trust? What, and who, will now shape her sexual identity? The internet has opened a thousand new doors of opportunity for people who are not looking out for her best interest to tell her what she wants to know. They've already told her some things, and judging by her downloads, she was listening attentively. And she's not alone.

How many kids do you know who are allowed fairly unlimited access to the internet? I know plenty. How many of them are required to have an adult in the room when they use the internet? I know very few. And it's a shame. It's a shame because it is so simple to shield our children from what they are not ready to see, so easy to put measures in place to ensure that instead of doing damage control once your child has been exposed to all the internet has to offer, you'll only have to be the annoying parent or caregiver that insists on seeing every single website that your child visits.

Yes, I just said every website. Take a deep breath and deal with the level of involvement I'm expecting of you.

Ideally, it is best for you to be in the room when your child is on the internet. That means every time they're a the computer, you're a glance away. I also highly recommend the sort of parental control that only allows your child to visit websites you have approved. This means that every time junior or little miss wants to navigate to a page you've never set eyes on, they have to ask you. Annoying? Yes. Effective? Also yes. Do it from the time they first lay eyes on the internet and they'll not know how ridiculously annoying you are until little Timmy down the street tells your little darling that his mom lets him visit whatever websites he wants without ever asking. (In this case, it also might be handy to teach your kids that little Timmy's mom obviously doesn't love him very much and that he is to be pitied.) (I kid.) (Kind of. Because it's always a good idea to let your kids know how much you love them, and that part of loving them is protecting them.) Make sure that your kids know that you put the controls on not because you don't trust them, but because you don't trust the world full of weirdos that has access to the internet.

The thing I recommend above all is a good, loving connection and good communication with your children. If they feel comfortable coming to you for answers, they'll be much less likely to run to Google, and if they do, they will probably also be more likely to tell you about the negative or confusing things they've found. Take the time, put in the effort, cultivate the relationship, and you will reap what you sow. I cannot emphasize this enough. They are the most precious thing that you have been entrusted with. Treat them as such. Protect your kids. I really can't say that enough.

No, really, I can't. PROTECT YOUR KIDS.


James E. Robinson, III said...

Thank you so much for sharing this Mary. - James

Shiz said...

Ok, this actually made me cry. Well said.

laura said...

mary, thank you so much for your post. shiz forwarded it on to me. i work on human trafficking issues, which frequently intersect with pornography issues. i recently saw a really fascinating documentary about internet porn, which i think you (and perhaps the parents of the girl you care for?) might be interested in viewing -- perhaps even the girl herself, when she is older? some of it is really hard. i don't know. you all, of course, are the only ones who can make that call. the documentary is called "Traffic Control: The People's War on Internet Porn" and you can find it here: http://www.trafficcontrolthemovie.com/

Lithuanian librarian (retired) said...

When I worked as a public librarian, and people asked for advice about computers for their children, I would always suggest that they place the computer where the parents could see the screen, and NOT in the privacy of a child's bedroom, for exactly the reasons you detailed. That goes for cable or satellite tv connections too, unless you put parental controls on those.