Protecting children from online erotica/pornography
Nearly every school system in North America is beginning to debate the use of the internet in schools. Wifi has become ubiquitous, LTE connections are in nearly every student’s backpack and the hand wringing and panic over what children are surfing has reached epic levels.
What are they surfing? Are we raising perverts? How will we keep our children from danger? What about cyber bullying? Shouldn’t we filter the internet? Maybe let’s just turn the whole thing off…
And, those fears are powerful. It’s beginning to look like those unaddressed fears could put our children in the crosshairs of decades of paranoid (and almost certainly futile) attempts to lock them out of more and more of what is arguably the most important part of the rest of their lives – while trying to call doing so an, “Effective education…”
And, why the heat?
Other then a bit of fear about bullying, most of the worry is exclusively focused in one personally and culturally incendiary area: the use of/addiction to erotic/pornographic materials. The area is incendiary primarily because most estimates put the total of sexual abuse victims in our society right around the 40% mark and many of those persons (And others) consider even online erotica to be nothing more then video evidence of sexual assault or abuse and, thus, react extremely harshly to the existence of such – much more to pornography.
And, this perspective is certainly not to be ignored or made light of. Yet, as much compassion and understanding as it may be due, the purpose of this article is not to debate the validity of the viewpoint. The hard cold reality of the matter is that erotic materials are legal in Canada, and both erotica and pornography (In Canada legally referred to as obscenity) are legal in the United States. Our children will grow up in a world that considers erotic material to be normal and makes very little effort to even conceal it from them. (And, yes, I’m fully aware that the existence of the internet makes Canadian laws against obscenity about as anachronistic as current laws that still prohibit driving faster then a horse and buggy can trot.)
The problem is, that intensity makes it very difficult to have a fact and reason based discussion of any sort. And, even if we could move beyond that filter, just a cursory examination of the conflict makes it quickly apparent that logic still isn’t that big of a factor in the rest of the clash if compared to several other different elements of culture and world view. (At this point, there’s a serious temptation to just give up and flee the discussion – but there isn’t a reasonable or productive solution at the end of such.) Perhaps it’s time we looked at some of those clashes in belief systems for, unless those entering the discussion have a willingness to stop and think through the presuppositions they carry, the debate will never get anywhere and solutions will never be found.
(Note: This post is directly a result of a discussion I had with one of the heads of the PTA at our daughter’s (Christian) school – and posted here because, for better or worse, this proposal/position statement is too important to have it ignored by school administration – AGAIN.)
The first is a clash of beliefs about addiction:
The first position comes straight out of a medical/disease model. That position holds that the brain is a delicately balanced snowflake-network of billions of specialized neurons that create our emotions, views of the world, and thoughts – born in perfect balance and harmony and given to parents to protect and shield from life’s threats. It holds that addiction results from exposure to addictive material or chemicals which can destabilize the brain in highly persistent ways leading to a life time of struggle with a sick and unbalanced brain that requires external support due to the intensity of the drive that exposure leaves behind in the brain – usually by way of a group you continually attend and various other interventions to assist the person who is believed to have lost control of his or her brain. It’s a highly deterministic model that is fundamentally opposed to the idea of free-will.
The firm belief that the presence of and exposure to addictive media will create a lifetime of addiction in a child is usually the root cause of the incredible fear which nearly always drives this debate. Yet, that belief is pure fiction (dating from the start of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in the 1930’s) and has been throughly discredited by modern psychological research. Nearly the entire population of North America has tried alcohol and smoked weed – why do only a few get addicted? Test any group of twenty year olds and a huge number of them will test out as addicts. Yet, only seven years later, the vast majority of that same group will no longer test out as addicts and will never have undertaken any treatment whatsoever. Scientifically, there is no correlation between the presence of more or less addictive substances/behaviors to a population group and the overall level of addiction found in such.
The second position is a deeply Christian and research driven position that holds that your mind is not your brain. Those who hold this second position may believe that the mind is some kind of disembodied soul, or just regard it as some kind of other energy or system of information processing but, regardless, it is founded on the belief that there is some kind of mental energy that you control, that the mind, however esoteric, exists and that the brain is a 3lb interface which does what the mind wants. This position is founded in the well grounded science of neuro-plasticity which studies how the brain can adapt to almost any conditions the beliefs held in the mind dictate and, when changed, can adapt in a different direction. This model does not see parents as protectors of a child’s brain from a savage and damaging world but as guides who teach their children about the world, show them how to get their needs met and teach them how to believe and think in the face of the beauty and chaos that is life.
This model holds that addiction is foundationally a shame, fear and guilt based relational problem and a struggle with false belief systems about and skill-sets for getting needs met. It holds that those who are addicted will be those who have resisted life change, numbed the pain that should have changed them, bought into false beliefs about life and what will meet their needs, never grasped the difference between relief and real need fulfillment and are basically mired in blame towards the world for their general misery – the thinking and belief bases of addiction. It sees addiction as being learned in the home by way of distorted relational patterns, abuse, neglect and parents who, themselves, do not know how to honestly address their mental and emotional worlds and are, thus, unable to teach their children to get legitimate needs met in legitimate ways.
And, most importantly, it teaches that it is possible to learn to live in a radically different way such that you no longer go through the world looking at it as a giant medicine cabinet filled with numbing agents. And, it holds that it is the role of parents and other institutions to model and teach such – not just hide all of the pills for a few years.
The second is a clash in beliefs about what constitutes safety:
Nearly every year, schools all over North America are besieged by sales reps from companies promoting the virtues of school uniforms. They are there to promote the soundly discredited idea that those uniforms will protect children from peer pressure, uphold moral standards of dress/conduct, heal behaviour problems and (laughably) even save money. And, they can back those claims – with a wide range of research studies of teachers who believe that gang violence was diminished, there was less revealing dress and peer pressure was eliminated.
Yet, when clearer heads and saner research strategies are finally employed they usually find that the only thing that changed was the adult’s ability to perceive the presence of the problem. (When the child who just assaulted another and stole his iPhone is wearing gang colors, gang violence has just occurred and gets reported as such. But, if both children are wearing school uniforms, a fight just happened on the playground…)
Uniforms ARE successful at eliminating immodest dress, gang colors and (to a very limited degree) the ability to show status vis dress. However, the real question is whether we want to accomplish such? If you were driving down the highway and the indicator light on your dashboard came on that read, “Oil,” would you grab a screwdriver and stab that annoying little light to death so you can keep driving? No? Then why would we silence one of the few indicator lights we have with respect to the hearts of our children?
While there is some benefit found in preventing accidental exposure at young ages, there is no functional difference between locking down/cutting off access to the internet and putting uniforms on children as both only serve to hide problems from public view. The uniform model unknowingly teaches that, “If I can’t see the problem, it doesn’t exist.” Simple rational thought should dictate that IT IS THE FOUNDATIONAL JOB OF PARENTS AND SCHOOL SYSTEMS TO SEE PROBLEMS. Internet access – and technological means of monitoring such – can become one of the most important means for any parent or school system to monitor the state of the hearts and minds of children and to intervene before problems have become compulsive. When we deploy our pathetic little school filters, our children deploy the vast array of public domain tools designed to penetrate the great firewall of China and all we really did is become the authors of our own ignorance.
Unfortunately, that requires parents and school systems to finally get willing to see and address problems for real. It requires that parents finally admit that the rate of internet erotica and/or pornography exploration/usage/addiction in your average grade seven class will be right around 100% of the boys and 100% of the girls and that the vast majority of them got their first exposure via their parents stash of such. And, it requires a willingness to admit the utter failure of try-harder driven, shame and guilt filled based approaches in managing it.
The third clash is centred in theological positions about how the human heart is changed:
The first of them is an Old Covenant position:
This position holds that though we are not under the Law of Moses, the New Testament provides a new list of rules we must comply with such that we still continually sin and break the Laws of God. Maturity is held to be the result of the guilt based conviction of the Holy Spirit that causes us to cease to break those laws as often, thus cease offending God as much and rendering the final judgment less painful for us where fewer sins are replayed on a movie screen and we suffer less of a loss of reward. While salvation is not in question and forgiveness has been granted in a judicial sense, it holds we still must be mindful not to be flippant about our sins and continually confess them as we are still in daily need of forgiveness in a parental sense to be restored to relationship with God as children who continually offend their father.
The Catholic confesses sins to a priest. The evangelical feels superior in confessing directly to God but both fundamentally miss the whole concept of, “Once and for ALL!” This model leaves children in the grip of the unholy trinity which Christ died to take away and that which forms the root of all false belief systems that create addiction: Shame, Guilt and Fear.
The opposite is a New Covenant position:
Long before Christ came, He was the Word who moved Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34) to speak of what Christ would bring to the world. He spoke of a time when God would write His will for us on our hearts and we would be led from within. He envisioned a new deal where the covenant would no longer be broken and all would know God. He prophetically looked forward to when all sins would be forgiven and sin forgotten such that we would no longer live in constant reminder of our sins and no longer be dependant on lists of rules or being led by intermediaries and human teachings. It was a vision of the end of shame, guilt and fear based relationship with God and the dawn of a new age of intimate, relationship focused Grace and freedom.
If Christ really did what he said He would do, then perhaps the entire system of law causing death by way of shame, guilt and fear, “Is finished?” If so, then we have the daringly risky task before us of teaching children to live in the wide open fields of God’s grace – instead of sending in the fence building crews and once again making Christ Lord over a system of sin and death. Maybe the basic system of a compulsion to be bad arising out of the directive of the Law to be good really has been forever ended? Perhaps we need to be teaching children to live a life of, “What’s next Daddy,” instead of acting like the next naked picture they see will destroy their eternal souls?
Thus, we stand at a fork in the road:
One choice is for fear based, bubble wrapping of our children’s world, control driven attempts to eliminate the appearance of the problem, shame fear and guilt based motivation of righteousness for children and the futile hope that someone else will fix our children’s belief and relational problems for us.
The other stands firm in the belief that God can change the human heart and mind, that He works through us as we honestly engage reality, not through law and shame/guilt, but through His call to our hearts for intimate belonging. It honestly engages the world, bravely walks into the hearts of our children and commits to first healing the brokenness within ourselves. Then, it finally and irrevocably admits that we can not live a money, power, control or religion focused life and expect that our children will grow up to feel, think and relate correctly.
And, it does something about that:
Effectively doing something about this problem first and foremost requires a willingness to walk away from the array of band-aid level solutions which have become so popular and an openness to accept that really fixing the problem is going to make us and a whole lot of people somewhat uncomfortable. Change is always difficult – especially when the change that needs to occur is in the area of long held presuppositions and repulsions which, often, are rooted in abuse and trauma of the past.
Recognize that your feelings do not dictate reality:
The first step in fixing this involves stepping back from the pain of our pasts and our cultural presuppositions and admitting that it’s just naked bodies and people having sex. Yes, we may feel disgust, grief over the exploitation or intense rage about the objectification of others but, no matter what our feelings may be, it’s not going to destroy your child’s eternal soul. Every teen on the continent has seen it – and the rates of sexual assault may even be falling. Go to most beaches in Europe and most everyone is wandering around topless or completely naked – and the children are fine. Our feelings from our North American Puritan roots or our hideous sexual assault rates don’t dictate reality or in any way scale the damage actually seen in children who are exposed to erotic materials. Neither does the oppressive guilt you feel over what YOU have looked at/masturbated to or the shame over your own sexual past you so desperately desire your children to avoid or be protected from. (Obviously, exposure to legitimate, legally defined, rage based pornographic materials is an entirely different matter but that rarely occurs by accident.)
Freaking out or raging over such just creates a further picture in your child that sex is dirty, shameful, awful, nasty and you should only do it with the one you love… It causes your child to go into a shame or guilt based hiddenness about sexuality that removes you from the loop. It cancels the chances your child will ask you the important questions, renders you unaware of if your child is going to use erotic materials, keeps you in the dark when your child decides to sexually experiment and makes you completely unable to intervene and/or at least keep your child somewhat more safe if he/she is going to do something stupid.
Open the lines of communication:
Our first talk with our daughters about sex and sexuality happened when they were five and seven years of age — thanks to Robbie Harris’s brilliant hard-cover comic book called, “It’s So Amazing.” Over the years we have had detailed discussions about everything from pregnancy, poverty from such, birth control (including IUDs, hormonal methods, condoms, STD’s, ovulation, cycles etc) rape, sexual assault, and a whole host of other areas including bisexuality, homosexuality paraphilias, abusive relationships, erotic materials, pornography etc… Nothing has been hidden from them.
Tell them the truth about your own sexual pasts and your current sexual relationship. Less then 10% of you didn’t have sex before marriage – yes, even in good Christian families – and, of that 10%, most of you did everything but… Your story is powerful and can do more to build your relationship with your child and make you seem human enough to trust and listen to than nearly anything else. Yes, even if your past includes addiction, same sex experimentation/desires and whatever promiscuity or abuse…
Your children need to know you – not the lily white image of holiness they generally experience, not as a model to follow, but as proof of your unapproachability and irrelevance to their worlds. If you can’t talk about it, then get help so you can!!!
Clean up your messaging about sex:
Never once have we said to our children the standard line that, “Sex is beautiful, special and you should only do it with the one you will forever love.”
Because that line, to quote Staci Eldredge, makes a child into an, “Emotional whore,” selling love to get sex or sex to get love.
We’ve told our children that sex is fun. It’s incredibly pleasurable, it’s intensely bonding. It’s one of the most wonderful intimate experiences you can have. That it should be wildly erotic, incredibly magical, deeply passionate, relationally fulfilling and, above all, fantastically enjoyable!
If it doesn’t feel that way, then DON’T!!! If it feels pressured, forced, terrifying, shameful, guilty, manipulated, unsafe, insecure, like you are earning something, demanded, exploitive, controlling, selfish, impermanent, unloving, painful, damaging or in any way risky to your heart, mind, soul or body, THEN, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T DO IT!!!!!!!!!!
It almost goes without saying that there really is only one context where anyone will feel not feel some of the above list of negativity…
Change your life:
It is not possible to have both parents pursuing high powered careers, spend the average 11.3 minutes with your child daily, otherwise spend the rest of your life in the car driving to sporting events and expect your children are somehow being parented by osmosis. Not. Gonna. Happen.
Children do not just wake up and catch the complexity of the first three elements of a world view discussed at the top of this article. Those elements need to be taught, discussed, woven into day to day life and read about. For example, how will your children ever grasp a New Covenant faith if you don’t sit down and read through, say, something like what Bruxy Cavey has to say. It’s not like they have much of a chance of grasping it via the ceaseless rules and religion continually pounded from your average pulpit…
Children need investment from two emotionally healthy parents who are really willing to form a real relationship with them and God has designed no more effective conduit for the shaping of a child’s heart then that time intensive process. It is that foundational relationship with a child that meets the deepest love needs of the child and teaches him or her that it is in relationship that those needs are met – not with some glowing image on a screen or in having sex with someone your child barely even knows.
Get real about sex:
I hate to break this to you but, statistically, your children, somewhere along the line, almost certainly will have sex outside of marriage. Abstinence only education/virginity pledges will, at best, delay onset of sexual activity less then two years, make the child 66% less likely to use a condom and birth control and up to five times more likely to engage in high STD-risk-bearing, porn star style sexual behaviors. We’d all like this to be different but hiding our heads in the sand is not going to fix the problem. If you are looking for a real solution to teen sex, refer to previous section to at least delay it as long as possible.
The shame and guilt based tactics used by most of the abstinence only education/virginity pledge programs can sometimes be the driving force behind an addiction to erotic materials. For the few times when those programs are successful, they generally work by driving children away from that which they most need to explore – relationships – and towards getting their needs met themselves – usually through erotic materials. While none of us would advocate for either, there is a sense in that a child exploring promiscuity is actually healthier then a child, locked in a basement bedroom surfing hours of erotic material as, at least the promiscuous child is still pursuing a relational meeting of his or her needs.
But, most importantly, not acknowledging the highly sexualized teen culture your children live in (and the obvious sexual behaviors of their friends) causes you to be seen by your child as out of touch. Not providing careful instructions in birth control and acknowledging the need for IUDs or other semi-permanent forms of birth control just to guard against the fallout of rape doesn’t convince your children you are more moral – it causes them to believe you are ignorant and not to be trusted with issues of safety. And in the worst case, if teen solo or conjugal sexual behaviors are going to happen, wouldn’t you at least like the opportunity to limit the risk?
Forget Big Brother, YOU need to do the watching:
From the moment our children first touched a computer, they have lived in a surveillance state that the N.S.A. can only dream of. It involves alternative DNS providers, remote access utilities, shared user accounts, open access policies, logins, passwords, logging of nearly everything and the ability to watch every mouse click on their screens and see every iMessage in real time. And, they know it is there too – and have seen me remotely turn down the music on their computers many times…
And, besides Google Safe Search protecting against accidental exposure, no filtration of their internet usage whatsoever.
The result: Yes, they have seen some strange stuff at times – and, because the conversation is open, they just come and talk with us about it. I can’t even count the good conversations we have had which were triggered by something their explorations caused them to bump into. Invariably, they have been much more horrified at what we have shared with them then with whatever they found online. (I regard properly horrifying them with hard cold factual information as being one of my primary jobs anyway.) 😉
Let’s end rebellion, become parents and take the helm:
One of the single greatest antidotes to teen rebellion is the constant, persistent promise/threat of, “Oh, don’t worry, you will never have to fight me to go out and explore life – I’m gonna drag you out there to learn about it much faster then you ever dreamed and then walk with you every step of the way.”
But, that requires we ourselves, as parents, abandon our tired and dead religion for a living relationship with God. That we step outside of our safe little stained glass bubbles, face the world head on, admit the truth to ourselves and our children and become willing to spend the time and effort getting hands dirty with the reality of the world our children are facing so that we become the competent and trustworthy guides they so desperately need.
No child is ever going to rise up and claim, “My parents were great parents. They spend my entire childhood shielding me from the reality of life such that, when I left for college, it was like being thrown to the wolves.”