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Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography - from The New York Times

From NICK BILTON of The New York Times . . .

It had been another long day for Eliza, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mother who lives in Los Angeles with her two sons. She had taken the boys, 10 and 13 at the time, to school, taken care of the house, and after putting them to bed, planned to relax in front of her computer.

At least that’s what she was hoping to do. Eliza opened her computer and started to search for a document, but based on previous searches, the term “child porn” appeared on the screen.

“I went into a panic,” said Eliza, who was given anonymity to protect the identity of her children. Her mind started to race in a million different directions.

Two nights later, as they were going to bed, she asked the older son if he had searched for “child porn” and if so, why. “He said he was looking for porn made for children,” she told me. “He explained, embarrassed, that he just wanted to know what his body was supposed to look like at his age.”

Teenagers have easy access to a seemingly endless supply of pornography, including things that even many adults don’t want to see, such as mock sexual violence, misogynistic videos and, in extreme cases, child pornography.

Parents I’ve spoken with who have young boys acknowledged that trying to stop them from seeing online pornography is all but impossible. One father, for example, said that he installed web filtering software on the home computer, only to learn that his son had watched a gross-out pornography clip at a friend’s house.

I spoke with researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who walked me through a number of long-term studies that the group has been conducting since 2000 on children’s exposure to pornography. In one paper, the group found that 42 percent of online users ages 10 to 17 had seen pornography, and that 66 percent of those had seen it unwittingly, often as display ads on file-sharing sites.

Another study by the same university found that 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls were exposed to online pornography during their adolescence. You don’t need to be a scientific researcher to realize that’s a lot of exposure for children.

So, what can parents do to help protect their children?

Experts I spoke with said that today’s easy access to pornography, especially its violent and illegal forms, makes it imperative for parents to educate their children, not only about sex but specifically about online pornography, in all its flavors. And given how easy it is to find it online, it is important to inculcate them at an early age.

Here’s the new reality: Thanks to the Internet, children will see things that children probably shouldn’t. Teenagers with active hormones will get together with their friends and, when parents are out of sight, seek out and explore dark and salacious imagery.

So as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it may be for both parents and teenagers, part of raising a child today means explaining that, like Hollywood movies, pornography is often a fantasy that can take things to extremes.

Also, children should be warned about the dark and dangerous material they may stumble across online. If parents don’t, that uncomfortable and embarrassing feeling could be replaced with something much worse.

Take it from Eliza. The last thing you want to find on the home computer is a previous search for the term “child porn.”

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