Internet's Impact on Kids' Sex Education

Categories: Technology, Safety

TW: child abuse

This post was co-authored by Liz Walker and Jenny Hoey of Youth Wellbeing Project.

Who would have thought when we were cradling our babies in our arms, that we’d be part of the first generation of parents in history having to navigate keeping our children safe in an online world?

The internet offers many positive experiences, but it is essential to remember that whatever age we hand kids an internet-connected device, is the same age that we need to be talking about critical safety topics. The internet with all its wonders is not an age-segregated environment. This fact means that children will never be entirely safe online—approximately two-thirds of internet users are over the age of 18, and insidiously, many do not have your child’s safety in mind.

One of the concerns about children’s online experiences is their exposure to “inappropriate content”. The term “inappropriate” is somewhat unhelpful given it’s a non-specific term. As such, individuals tend to gloss over “inappropriate”, and disconnect from acknowledging anything that’s “too confronting”. In most cases, “confronting” is the same content that is the most dangerous for our kids. The umbrella term of “inapproprate” typically includes, but is not limited to, cyberbullying, sexting, explicit language, drug use, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, racism, homophobia, radical beliefs, hardcore pornography, and child exploitation material.

Pornography exposure and child exploitation material are two very confronting areas that we cannot ignore. The ease at which children can access porn has led to an alarming decrease in the age of first exposure. In 2017, a research study reported that the national average for seeing porn for the first time was 13. By late 2019, data from a filtering company indicated that one-third of students under the age of eight had attempted to access porn—this included accidental and intentional searches.

As a result, there is an increasing push for governments, including Australia, to introduce Age Verification measures—an integral move to prevent unlimited access to harmful content for the protection of children.

Some parents are proactive and use filtering software; however, many are unaware of the fact that the filtering of pornography and other harmful content on platforms such as YouTube and popular social media platforms is near impossible. In these instances, unless you specifically block the platform or implement parental controls on each platform, harmful content is still accessible. At Porn Resilient Kids, we investigated to find out how safe these platforms are. We were alarmed that within a matter of seconds, we had found pornography on YouTube and other social media platforms – Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok to be specific. YouTube concerned us the most, due to its popularity with younger children—despite it being a 13+ platform.

As stated by Russ Tuttle in the documentary Our Kids Online:

Our kids are learning their sexual behaviour through pornography. And pornography is a lousy educator.

Russ Tuttle, President and Founder of Stop Trafficking Project

None of us wants this.

Exposure to porn can leave children confused, afraid, and in some instances, searching for more. Even though the content is so shocking, little bodies can experience unwanted arousal to sexual content. In turn, this can create more confusion—and if parents have not provided a warning in advance, the child may not know if their loved adult is safe to approach. As such, they may continue watching porn for some time before a parent or safe adult discovers the behaviour.

Children are intrinsically curious, and porn exposure can result in desensitisation to extreme content and an increased vulnerability to grooming by online predators. Predators are known to frequent popular children’s games and social media platforms and tend to lure their victim to a messaging platform for ‘chats’. Of late, there’s been a lot of media coverage on the rise of predators and child exploitation material. However, what is less widely known is that an increasing amount of child exploitation material is self-generated. Children are being groomed and asked to share explicit photographs.

Russ Tuttle states the obvious when he says; 

There are predators on the outside looking in, that see everything our kids are doing online.

Ross Tuttle, President and Founder of Stop Trafficking Project

The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation reported earlier this year that a concerning number of children have unsupervised access to the internet. Sixteen per cent of children aged 4-7, forty per cent of children aged 8-11, and seventy-three per cent of children age 12-15, are unsupervised online. Additionally, seventy per cent of parents admit to allowing their children to use the internet anywhere in the home. 

While this raises further concerns about the online safety of children and may all sound like doom and gloom, it doesn’t have to be. We simply need to be clear on a few facts and put precautionary measures in place. When we contemplate taking a holiday by the beach, most of us would be conscious of the fact that our children are not safe if left unattended in the surf, or even on the beach for that matter, and would ensure that we were present to supervise them. We certainly wouldn’t think “I trust my child to be sensible”; or, “the beach is way too dangerous so we won’t be going there!” 

The part of the brain that controls, among other things, emotional expression, impulse control, problem-solving and judgement, is referred to as the frontal lobes. It is well-established that this is the last part of our brain to fully mature—approximately mid-twenties in boys and early twenties in girls. As such, by their very nature, children are far less likely to assess risk and danger adequately. 

So, as with going to the beach, precautionary measures need to be put in place before allowing our children access to the online world. 

Filters are essential; however, they cannot be the sole approach. Devices should remain out of the bedroom and bathroom—and parents should have the confidence to implement this rule as a non-negotiable. Time limits on device use are essential, as is monitoring and supervising a child’s activity online. The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation recommends supervision of all children in primary school when online. And to underpin the implementation of parental controls, we need to be talking to our children from a young age.

Education on body safety should start within the first few years of life. This knowledge includes teaching and using the correct names for private body parts, teaching the concept of tricky people (stranger danger is obsolete), and talking about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ secrets. A ‘safe’ secret might be a short-lived secret connected with a positive emotion such as excitement, i.e. a surprise birthday gift; and an ‘unsafe’ secret is usually a hidden motive combined with an uncomfortable feeling such as guilt or fear. 

Education such as this forms a good foundation. Parents should also talk to their children about sex and of the various dangers online, e.g. porn. Find resources to assist with these age-appropriate conversations at Porn Resilient Kids, including children’s books Milly’s Message for ages 5-10, and Hamish and the Shadow Secret for ages 8-12.

The ACCCE report states that eighty per cent of parents said they’d respond negatively to the disclosure of online harm. Yet, eighty-nine per cent believed their children would come to them if they experienced something negative. In contrast, the younger participants in the survey said they’d rather approach a sibling or peer instead. 

A natural emotional response for a child who has experienced something negative online would be feelings of shame or humiliation. As such, should your child approach you, it is essential to have an empathetic and calm response. It is equally important to remind a child that while you may have told them not to do something, if, for any reason, they make a poor judgment—you are their safety net and will be there to help them.

Ultimately, adults need to put aside any discomfort they have about discussing these subjects. When parents struggle to have tricky conversations, their children are likely to tune into this discomfort. Therefore, they may be less likely to approach them with questions or share when they have a negative experience online (or in the physical world for that matter).

Every single one of us wants that beautiful newborn to have the best chance of a healthy life—physically, mentally and emotionally. For this to happen, education and skilling-up starts with us—and encouraging our schools and parent networks to do the same. 

Recommendations include:

  • Have body safety discussions including the proper names for body parts, unsafe vs safe secrets, early warning signs and tricky people.
  • Ensure filtering restrictions are in place on each device and be aware of what isn’t filtered, e.g. social media and YouTube. 
  • Ensure that devices always stay in common areas – outside the bedroom and bathroom.
  • Set limits on how much time they spend online and be intentional with having times for meaningful face-to-face connection.
  • Be aware of whom they are interacting with online. They should not be interacting with anyone they have not personally met in person. A friend of a friend does not equate to knowing the person.
  • Have regular chats with your kids about your concerns and in return, be prepared to listen to them.
  • Check up on their devices regularly and ensure to supervise children in primary school when online.
  • Check that they know who their safety people are and reinforce the message that you will not get angry with them if they make a mistake and need you.
  • Have age-appropriate conversations about the differences between sex and porn and encourage critical analysis of porn so that they have a solid foundation to be a positive influence among peers and call out sexist, unsafe and unhelpful behaviours. 

For more information and guidance to have conversations and secure devices, try these resources:

Porn Resilient Kids

Youth Wellbeing Project

This article was co-authored by Liz Walker and Jenny Hoey of Youth Wellbeing Project—supporting schools and community with safety and wellbeing education to build online literacy and counter hypersexualised harms. Endorsed as a trusted eSafety provider, Youth Wellbeing Project provides classroom curriculum, professional training, student presentations and resources for schools and families. We aim to prevent porn and other sexual harms, enhance children and young people’s online, social and emotional relationships, and fortify children and youth within our hypersexualised culture.