keep kids from accessing porn online

Digital Alert: How Kids Are Accessing (And Even Creating) Porn

keep kids from accessing porn online

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Never before in the history of telecommunications media in the United States has so much indecent and obscene material been so easily accessible by so many minors in so many American homes with so few restrictions.”

And the research backs that up: studies have shown that 90 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls are exposed to pornography before they turn 18. On average, children first encounter obscene online content — including bondage, bestiality and even child pornography — when they are 12 years old. Meanwhile, 71 percent of kids hide what they see online from their parents.

But these statistics are just numbers until you meet the children who those numbers represent — and Dr. Tracy Bennett, a 20-year clinical psychologist who focuses on the relationship between teens and digital media, has met more than she would care to remember.  Dr. Bennett is the author of the GetKidsInternetSafe QuickStart Kit, a training system for parents to establish safer screen use.  

“Middle school kids are graduating from Pokemon to porn,” Bennett said.

Desensitization and Impossible Expectations

Dr. Bennett describes a world where teens no longer have to seek out porn — it seems to go looking for them.

“We are being inundated by these images at rates higher than we’ve ever seen before,” Bennett said. “Videos, music lyrics, violent content on video games, porn images on video games as rewards for players. It’s free content and it’s not regulated, so you get it at the click of a button. When kids see it, they get desensitized and need something more intense the next time. After several years, they feel it’s not just the norm, but that it’s necessary.”

This can be especially dangerous for young girls vying for the attention of boys who have been exposed to pornography. Porn can give boys unrealistic expectations that no real girl ever could — or should — successfully live up to.   

keep kids from accessing porn online

“The lack of accountability and anonymity online allows them to act horrifically to each other without consequence,” Bennett said of adult film actors who consistently push more and more extreme boundaries. “Girls see that and try to mimic it. They say, ‘Oh, if my boyfriend likes these images in his music and movies and video games, then I need to look like her to get his attention.'”

Teens: From Porn Consumers to Porn Producers

Dr. Bennett describes a perpetual cycle of children being exposed to pornography, becoming desensitized to it, normalizing it, and then producing it — willfully or otherwise.

“Social media imaging has changed sexuality for teens, and they are participating in pornographic activities,” Bennett said. “Teens are now actively participating in the process.”

Teens generate pornographic videos and images in three ways:

  • They take pictures of themselves and disseminate them voluntarily.
  • They are manipulated into doing so by someone who exploits their youthful poor judgement.
  • Images are taken and distributed without their knowledge or consent.

The teens who voluntarily create and distribute inappropriate images of themselves almost never understand the gravity, consequences, danger and permanence of their actions until it is far too late.

keep kids from accessing porn online

In one case, an 11-year-old girl took pictures of herself and distributed them because she wanted the boys in a new school to think she was sexy and fun. By the time she got to high school, the pictures were still circulating through her school and community.

“It was pervasively shared amongst teens and even adults,” Bennett said. “It was shared over and over again through the next years. It had a life of its own.”

In other cases, the subjects of pornographic images or videos are unwilling victims who are exploited against their will.

“A boyfriend can take picture of a girl unbeknownst to her and then share it on the Internet the next day,” Bennett said. “If a girl passes out from alcohol, they can take pictures and share them with others.”

Porn as a Game

Dr. Bennett began encountering students who were so desensitized, and had so normalized pornagraphy, that exploiting younger or more naive classmates became a contest.

This was the case with one boy who revealed the details of a “game” he and his friends played in high school.

“As a sophomore,” Bennett recalled, “his friends all had a hit list of middle school girls they were courting to get them to release nude pictures for their collections.”

keep kids from accessing porn online

In other cases, misguided rivalries became sophisticated contests, complete with scorekeeping systems.

“High school and middle school kids gave each other points,” Bennett said. “Rare photos of a girl who sent just one image could be worth more points, or a girl who sends more pictures could get more points. It could be based on how a girl looks, etc.”

This created the potential for a dangerous overlap between teens who accumulated collections of inappropriate pictures of their classmates and the sexual predators who wanted to get their hands on those pictures.  From collecting baseball and pokemon cards, kids have graduated to collecting nudes of girls in their schools.

What Parents Need to Know

It is critical for parents to understand that with simple access to a phone, a computer or both, kids have everything they need to view, hide and even create and produce porn.

“All they need is text messaging to do it,” Bennett said. “Not even social media. They send videos and images via text and they save them on hidden folders on their phones. The danger becomes magnified with apps like Yik Yak or Tinder, where they can meet people nearby in real life.”

It is critical for parents to monitor not just their children’s social media and messaging, but also their online viewing, searching and browsing habits. Once they view porn, they are far more likely to participate in exchanging inappropriate messages and images — and once an image is out there, it can rarely be taken back.

“It will get re-released year after year, and it will multiply. The child’s reputation becomes set. Even if someone reports an image, it takes a while to get it taken down. By that time it’s been re-released elsewhere.”

keep kids from accessing porn online

Regulations regarding the unwanted dissemination of private photos are a murky, inconsistent hodge-podge of state laws that do little to protect victims and in some cases, punish teen victims by classifying them as purveyors of child pornography.

“In California, for example, there are revenge porn laws,” Bennett said. “But they are only enforceable if the victim doesn’t take the picture herself. It’s legal for an intimate partner to collect images and share them without consent.”

Open dialogue is definitely part of the solution, but parents must understand that talking isn’t enough — even if they’re good parents who have a good kid.

That’s because it has nothing to do with good kids or bad kids. It has to do with neurology.

“I regularly say that the number one mistake parents make is assuming that teaching and talking to their kids — and telling them not to do it — is enough,” Bennett said. “The prefrontal region of their brains, which has executive control over decision making, is not developed until 25. You can tell a kid 800 times a day not to do something, and it won’t protect them — they will still do it if their friends tell them to do it. They don’t have the capacity to look into the future. That 11-year-old girl had no way of understanding that at 18, seven years later, that picture she shared would still be circulating amongst her peers or her colleagues. Even if her parents taught her that, she has no way of imagining the future. Until you’re in your older teens, you don’t have the intellectual capacity.”

For parents, there is no magic bullet. Protecting children requires a combination of dialogue and awareness, but parents must also use technology if they are going to be able to keep up with the technology used to exploit and expose their children.

keep kids from accessing porn online

“You needs apps like TeenSafe,” Bennett said. “We can’t filter everything. We can do our best, but there’s too much content, which is why I use TeenSafe as part of my collection.”

Dr. Bennett says that parents, like their children, are far more prone to making mistakes when they’re in a crisis or under stress — and she should know. She is living proof that even the experts have to stay vigilant and follow their own advice.

“I was teaching and working, seeing 35 patients a week,” Bennett said. “Then my parents died. I was sad and overwhelmed. I was super buried emotionally and physically. I was on my PC all the time. I looked up and my kids were on their computers, too. All of a sudden, it hit me — my kids are affected. I’m a great mom, I know what to do, I have locks on their PCs, but it doesn’t matter. I was too distracted and I wasn’t doing a good job.”

The days of a kid passing his dad’s Playboy magazine around the school while his parents are out of town are in the past. Today, hardcore porn sites get more views than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. Pornography — and the predators who would pressure and manipulate vulnerable or naive teens into sharing inappropriate images of themselves — is always just a click away.

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