How do you stop your children inadvertently viewing pornographic images? Melissa Jacob reports on a very modern parental headache.
It was a rainy afternoon and six-year-old Lachlan was searching for his favourite cartoons on the family iPad. His search returned naked adults in strange positions. Rough positions. Lachlan didn't know he had accidently stumbled across porn. "I want to rape you in the ass," was one of the lines delivered by a male actor. In Lachlan's mind anything related to bottoms was hilarious so he took the iPad to school to show his friends. His kindergarten friends.
Lachlan is certainly not the first young boy to see or share pornography, but the images that may have been inadvertently discovered in a Playboy magazine in past decades are now worlds away from the aggressive nature of mainstream pornography freely available on the internet.
Maree Crabbe, a community educator who specialises in pornography and young people, says, "What parents need to understand is that the relationship between young people and porn has shifted. Porn has become incredibly accessible, in ways unprecedented. What people see when they come across porn now is no longer a centrefold. It's commonplace to see moving images with deliberately aggressive scenarios such as gagging, choking, spanking and multiple partners penetrating a woman as they call her abusive names." The type of material that Lachlan discovered is, according to Crabbe, at the centre of the pornography bell curve.
According to research by Porn Harms, a US organisation, the average age of children's exposure to pornography is 11, but parents and professionals are dealing with exposure issues of children much younger.
Victorian mother Tamara* allowed her seven-year-old daughter Charlotte* to use the family iPad when she was sick. Following a conversation with her brother's friends, Charlotte decided it would be fun to Google "big boobs". Her search returned "a lot more than big boobs – full-scale penetration, fisting and anal sex", says Tamara. "Charlotte straight away burst into tears and blamed her friends because she felt so ashamed. I had no idea my seven-year-old could find this type of material. I thought she would have to be a member of these sites."
Tamara's initial reaction was also shame, followed by anger. As a mother and a practising psychologist, she realised that staying angry would have been the worst thing she could have done. "It's normal for kids to be curious," she says. "As a psychologist, I work on the principles of 'restorative practices', which is about finding out what happened, what harm has resulted and what we need to do to move forward. It's not about blame."
Following the incident, Tamara's family made some house rules about devices. "We decided to embrace technology, but we absolutely need to monitor their access and make devices child-safe. As parents, we make decisions about boundaries for their physical world, so why let them roam the virtual world on their own?"
Feminist activist Melinda Tankard Reist cautions parents not to rely solely on filtering software. "The reality is that most kids will see pornography outside the family home on phones or iPads. Even if your kids don't go searching for pornography, it will find them," Tankard Reist says.
Take the example of Louisa, who was supervising her six-year-old daughter's homework research in their open-plan kitchen. Her daughter Ella was researching guinea pigs on Louisa's iPhone and a naked man with a large penis popped up.
"Ella was surprised, then distressed," says Louisa. "Ella showed our babysitter and she showed me and I kind of screamed. I apologised to Ella and asked if she was okay. She seemed fine and continued her homework, but I was not okay. We use Norton Family [Parental Control Software] on the home computer. We all have our own logins and passwords so I can control all the settings, but it hadn't even occurred to me I needed to do that with my smartphone or the iPad."
Tankard Reist describes the methods of the almost $100 billion US porn industry as "calculated" and "predatory" in its efforts to attract hits from anyone aged three to 83. Search words, keystroke mistakes and advertising can lead unsuspecting young children straight to pornography.
Feminist blogger Paula Orbea created questionsforwomen.org as a way of navigating the hyper-sexualised world in which she finds herself raising her two daughters, aged seven and 10. Orbea wanted to create a dialogue about what she sees as an "emergency" for not just our daughters, but also our sons.
"It feels like everywhere I look we are saturated with sexualised images of women who are supposedly gagging for it," says Orbea. "In the school holidays I took my children to see a kids' movie at the local cinema, and there was an advertisement for pole dancing with a woman with her legs spread open. The Advertising Standards Board didn't see anything wrong with it. They dismissed my complaint."
Orbea, who shares an open and trusting relationship with her daughters, has already started to teach them how to deconstruct media images. "I want my girls to have the skills to critique what they see, but there's so much I don't want them to see. Things like rape porn and double anal sex are really common in mainstream porn now. The thing I find myself saying over and over again to the girls is, once you see something, you can't unsee it."
The accessibility of pornography on mobile phones and tablets is not only a problem for parents but also for schoolteachers. Heath, the head of welfare at a high school in regional NSW, says, "Not only have I had to deal with kids possessing and sharing hard-core porn, but they're also creating it by sexting and by filming other students."
Another high school teacher, Tom, says he was "alarmed" when he started working at a Sydney school in 2012. Whenever he used his laptop in class, boys in year 7 and 8 would call out, "You looking at P Hub, sir?" After several weeks, perplexed as to what the students were referring to, Tom looked up the sites at home. Some of them, including P Hub (a colloquial term for a popular porn site), were free of age restrictions and featured violent, graphic videos.
"It's not just kids who would be traumatised by this; I think most adults would be traumatised," Tom says. "I was traumatised and believe me, I'm no stranger to porn. My friend's dad used to show us Playboy and Picture when I was a young teen, but that stuff's nothing compared to what teens are looking at today."
Lee Ward, a 38-year-old beauty therapist, is clear about her stance on technology when it comes to her 12-year-old twins Abby and Emily. When they each got an iPod Touch, she talked to them about the dangers of the internet and told them that under no circumstances were they to use the devices in their bedrooms.
"When Abby and Emily first started high school they weren't on Facebook, but it soon became apparent that it was a huge social disadvantage," Ward says. She allowed them to join on the basis that they became her Facebook friend. "I look at their pages and read their messages. One day a boy posted an explicit pornographic video on Emily's page with a woman straddling a man. I talked to her about the danger of clicking on the video and then we talked about why she shouldn't be friends, Facebook or otherwise, with a boy who would do this."
Lee told her daughters to ask her anything. "This year they've asked me what a wanker and what a '69' is. It breaks your heart, but I'd rather they get the answers from me."
It's difficult for parents to navigate the increasingly complex topic of tween and teen sexuality. Sarah Calleja, a clinical sexologist and counselling psychologist, says, "Gone are the days of the birds and the bees. Parents need to understand that sexual images come into the house from billboards, advertising and social media, and kids are trying to make sense of all this."
In collaboration with Swinburne University of Technology, Calleja has created a Victorian Design Award-nominated iPad app called Parents, Tweens and Sex (PTAS). The app is designed not only to educate kids, but also to help parents overcome the awkwardness of dealing with topics such as sexual readiness, puberty and pornography.
The app is a sex-education resource with quizzes, questions and video grabs of hypothetical situations that can be used as ice-breakers or conversation starters for parents who might find it difficult to broach the subject. Calleja says that the goal of the app is to create a "shared dialogue" between parents and their children but she reminds us that such opportunities, mainly courtesy of the media, present themselves every day.
"Celebrities having mistresses, Miley Cyrus twerking – these are all opportunities to talk to your children," she says. "But don't just talk to them, ask for their opinion on these issues and when they give it, listen. That will show them that you value what they have to say. Then, when they are confused or conflicted by what they see, they will come to you. You will be their go-to person."
As a parent, it is daunting to think about the dangers that lurk beneath the swipe of a screen or the touch of a button. Chris Durante, IT co-ordinator at Loreto Kirribilli, a private girls' school in Sydney, spoke to me at length about suggestions many of us have heard before – applying filters, using devices in open or shared areas within the house, being Facebook friends with our children – but his final thoughts were poignant.
"The most powerful filter is the person themselves," he says. "The objectification and violence against women, the unscrupulous means by which porn makes its way across screens, these are conversations we should be having with our children - and when we do, we all move to a better to place."
*Names have been changed.
STATISTICS ON PORNOGRAPHY
• 70% of boys and 53.5% of girls have seen porn by age 12; 100% of boys and 97% of girls have seen porn by age 16. (Source: The Sex Lives of Australian Teenagers by Joan Sauers.)
• 67% of teens have cleared out their browser history or cache to make sure their parents can't view their online activity; 64% of parents do not use online parental controls or filtering software. (Source: Microsoft, 2011.)
• 88% of scenes in mainstream pornography contain some sort of physical or verbal aggression. Significantly, 94 per cent of that aggression is directed towards women. (Source: Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best-selling Pornography Videos, University of Arkansas.)
• Porn sites account for 30% of all internet traffic. (Source: Google DoubleClick Ad Planner 2012.)
• The most popular porn site on the internet attracts 4.4 billion page views per month. (Source: Google DoubleClick Ad Planner 2012.)
TIPS FOR PARENTS
• Create individual logins, passwords and security settings for each family member. Microsoft recommends that passwords contain at least eight characters and be a combination of upper-case and lower-case characters, punctuation, numbers and symbols.
• Employ security filters, such as Net Nanny or Norton 360 Multi-Device.
• For Apple iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch) you can change and control settings in just three clicks. For more information on parental controls go to support.apple.com/kb/HT4213.
• The Parents, Tweens and Sex iPad app is available on iTunes. For more information, see ptsapp.com.au.