• Leah Jewett

Tech talk – how parents can manage sexting, porn and screen time


Left to their own devices: the challenges of managing family screen time… (Image: NPR)


It’s hard to keep pace with our children’s digital lives. We know that kids are exposed to sex and relationships topics through the media, social media, the internet, school, kids in the playground, sexting and porn, which for many children and young people has become a default form of sex education. But there is something you can do as parents that will help safeguard your children. You can start the sex-education conversation.


Did you know that parents are the missing link in their children’s sex education? That is the basic principle behind Outspoken Sex Ed, the social enterprise I co-founded. The idea is that parents talking openly at home about sex and relationships topics with their children helps with safeguarding, improves mental health and strengthens the parent-child connection.


It’s not surprising that we find it difficult to talk to our children about sex and relationships – most of us didn’t have much sex education ourselves or parents who talked openly with us. No wonder we don’t have the language, skills or confidence to talk openly with our children.

Often parents are unaware of how important it is to take on the role of being their children’s sex educator – by the way, “sex educator” is a term that was used by the Department for Education in its sex-education guidance back in the year 2000. (In its updated guidance, parents have notably been demoted to being their children’s “prime educator”.)


Unesco agrees, saying that parents “play a primary role in shaping key aspects of their children’s sexual identity and their sexual and social relationships”.



SEX ED BEGINS AT HOME


It’s true! Sex education begins at home. It’s delivered through parents’ attitudes, behaviour and language.

Parents and schools are actually young people’s top two preferred sources of information about sex and relationships. Believe it or not, young people want to be able to get sexual information from their parents as well as insight into relationships and break-ups.

Many parents tend to be reactive rather than proactive – they might wait for a situation to crop up or for their children to come to them with a question, to reach a certain age or to be at a particular developmental stage. Also, lots of parents have barriers to talking openly at home – these could include religious or cultural beliefs; embarrassment, shame, fear or past negative experiences; a perceived need to have all the answers and/or worries about driving their children away.

Most commonly parents have fears around their children’s emerging sexuality or of “destroying their child’s innocence”. Parents often perceive sexual knowledge as something for adults only or that it’s not age appropriate for their kids. But if you shelter children and young people and shield them from learning about sex and relationships, that maintains their ignorance, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and liable to seeking information from unreliable sources such as porn or their peers.


Right on target: an iconic image from How A Baby Is Made, the 1970s classic by Per Holm Knudsen

There are all kinds of myths about sex education – for example that it encourages children to have sex. But as we know from the example of Holland – which has world-class sex ed and where families are open about sex and relationships topics – teenagers tend to have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies – and they have delayed and mutually desired first-time sexual experiences, often under their parents’ roof and with parental awareness.


So let’s do it like the Dutch and talk openly at home! But which parent should do the talking? When we did an online survey about parents and sex education, 91% of women said that they were the parent most likely to talk to their children about sex and relationships. This is true in the general population – even though there’s a growing awareness among some men that they need to engage with their children (primarily about porn, they believe, and primarily with their sons) they still tend to leave their wives to be the “providers” and “gatekeepers” of their children’s sex ed.

Ideally both parents would talk openly at home to both their daughters and their sons. So how do you start? Not with the classic idea of having “the talk” – a one-and-done lecture. What’s doable are casual, day-to-day mini-conversations that are normalised and revisited often. Be honest about how awkward you find it – just by talking, you will telegraph the message that you are there for your kids. Eventually they should mirror back your openness and your willingness to talk. The more you try talking openly, the more confident you’ll become, which in turn will give your children confidence.


But how do you actually talk openly? As ways into the sex-education conversation, you can bring up recent news stories and other people’s experiences as talking points. Also use so-called “teachable moments” from films, TV shows, song lyrics, music videos, video games, ads and billboards. Ask your kids questions and be curious about what they think. Use humour. Be factual. Keep going.



SAFEGUARDING & CONSENT


Safeguarding children goes beyond parents putting in place controls, blocks and monitors.


Safeguarding involves using correct names for body parts in a natural, factual way.


Safeguarding involves consent. Encourage young children to understand that they have a right to personal space and bodily autonomy. They can choose not to be hugged or tickled. Help them to distinguish between safe and unwanted touch. Make sure they know phrases like: “My body, my rules” and “I am the boss of my body.” This is the forerunner of consent!


When talking to older kids about consent, it’s helpful to recognise that boys are conditioned to expect entitlement while girls tend to feel they are expected to please others. Consent comes down to showing another person respect and demonstrating self-respect. It’s also about self-knowledge and pleasure – you can’t know what you don’t want if you can’t acknowledge what gives you pleasure.


Safeguarding also involves critical thinking. Children are conscious of gender roles by age 2.

So encourage them to question our culture: why isn’t it OK for girls to play with tractors or boys with dolls? Question the imagery and media messaging about sex, sexuality, sexiness, gender stereotypes and the objectification of women that we all take for granted.




Below the radar: put filters and blocks in place on your child’s devices. (Image: Common Sense Media)

SCREENS


A recent study found that parents do not always communicate with their children about risks related to using digital technology. Why? Because they believe this conversation could trigger children’s curiosity and prompt them to engage in risky activities.


Cyberbullying has, over the past 5 years, been a top concern for young people, parents, educators and the media – but that’s now been overtaken by seeing harmful content – which includes violent images, racism, suicide, pressures to be very thin or to bulk up bodies and nude pictures.


Safeguarding definitely involves talking openly about porn. There’s a generational disconnect in terms of parents’ understanding of their children’s exposure to porn and their children’s lived experiences. The British Board of Film Classification says that while 53% of British children aged 11 to 13 have seen porn – some as young as age 7 – 75% of their parents assume that their children have not seen it.

Whether children and young people unintentionally come across porn, are shown it by friends or actively search for it, they are being exposed to explicit and often extreme images before they are ready to process or relate to what they are seeing.

Watching porn raises concerns around body image, self-esteem, self-confidence, unrealistic expectations, harmful gender stereotypes, victim blaming, consent, pleasure and violence. An estimated 88% of mainstream porn features the degradation of women.

Talking openly about porn is the antidote to the detrimental impact that porn can have on children and young people’s attitudes, expectations and behaviour. It’s something parents find incredibly hard and unequipped to do. After all, they generally didn’t grow up with an endless supply of sexual images accessible on computers, laptops, iPads, PlayStations and mobile phones or with a “porn production studio” in their pocket.

But we have to brave the subject. Let younger children know that they might accidentally come across pictures or videos of people touching each other with no clothes on that they aren’t ready to see – these are for adults and can make them feel strange. Say that if they see something that upsets them to look away, close or turn off the device and come talk to you.


With older children, do your best to demystify porn – that will play into their love of finding out about how things work and debunking misinformation. You could talk about mainstream porn as an industry or the neuroscientific theories about watching porn or the impact of porn on attitudes, behaviour, desire, body image and self-esteem or why porn is not good sex ed.



PARENT-CHILD CONNECTION


Basically a huge part of safeguarding your kids and improving their mental health involves having everyday conversations about sex, love, sexuality, changing bodies, the developing brain, body image, gender stereotypes, pleasure, consent and relationships.


So think about your own formative experiences, your current opinions and your hopes for your children. If you ask them sex and relationships questions and listen non-judgmentally to their thoughts, feelings and experiences, you can turn the tables on who is the “expert” – it’s a kind of reverse-mentoring approach that empowers your children by your learning from them and a great way to strengthen your connection.


What really underpins safeguarding your children is keeping a line of communication open between you. So go ahead and start the sex-education conversation.




This was presented during Communicating Effectively In Families About Young People’s Digital Lives – a Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) webinar held on 12 November 2020 for the Festival of Social Science with University of Surrey criminology lecturer Dr Emily Setty, Habyts founder Charlotte Robertson and Digital Awareness UK founder Cynthia Crossley. Watch the webinar here

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