Parenting in the 21st century comes with many blessings as well as many challenges. The easy access to information, and 24/7 guidance on how to be the best parent to your “profile” of child, is empowering and valuable, but the challenge of raising the Generation Alpha child, currently populating our Primary Schools, remains significant. The one defining feature of the generation of children currently populating our schools is that they live their lives as “Upagers”. These children have been dubbed Upagers as they receive information, willingly or not, that is significantly ahead of their chronological age and developmental trajectory, and have the exposure of a 12-year-old even though they are between 6 to 8 years old. Proportionately, 9–12-year-olds receive increasingly sophisticated information. Some of this information can be valuable and ensures children learn about different cultures, global issues or language patterns, amongst a myriad of other knowledge packages, but parents and educators need to assume the important role of filling the gaps in knowledge. They do this by providing good foundational knowledge to the “Upagers” so that the sophisticated information they receive is placed in the context of good fundamental understandings and background knowledge in English, mathematics, and a broad-based knowledge of the world.
Contrary to the above, some of the information our children receive can be extremely harmful and requires correction. The information I refer to is known as pornography.
During the course of this semester, Rowena Thomas, from an organisation called Amazing Me, will be providing a range of positive and empowering sex education programs for Years K-6 students and their parents. One of the aspects of sex education highlighted by the various blogs on the Amazing Me website, is that of pornography and the challenge this presents for our Generation Alpha children who are connected to the world of technology and information more consistently and ubiquitously than any other generation.
To date, students are usually well-educated on five steps to keep themselves safe. These five steps include:
- Consent: Students understand consent and that they have the right to say yes or no when they choose who to hug and kiss or who is permitted to touch their completely private bodies and indeed their genitalia. They recognise what makes them uncomfortable and learn what responses they can enact.
- Early warning signs: Young children are taught to recognise the early warning signs of feeling uncomfortable about doing something such as butterflies in the stomach or a racing heart and how to stop engagement with such activities.
- Make sure you have support from a safety network of five trusted adults who you know will listen to you and act on what you share.
- Have a good accurate vocabulary to name body parts and understand what actions are acceptable with each of these body parts.
- The difference between good secrets or confidential information for themselves, and bad secrets which they are coerced to keep in a dark space in their world.
They are also educated on changes that occur in their bodies and learn about human reproduction with both their teachers and parents. However, the idea of teachers and parents talking to a child about pornography, let alone saying the “p” word, makes adults feel fearful, uncomfortable and awkward and has been an area of avoidance to date. It is critical that this topic of discussion is addressed in schools and at home as it is one of the greatest challenges facing our young students with the potential to impact them now and in adult life.
Why Parents avoid talking about Pornography
Parents are reticent to discuss pornography with their child. Some reasons for this include:
✮ They didn’t encounter pornography until high school and think the status quo persists.
✮ They fear their child will no longer be innocent if they say ‘pornography’.
✮ They fear it might encourage children to look at pornography if this discussion takes place.
✮ They think primary school children are too young and not ready to discuss this topic.
✮ Their child has not asked so they are not going to tell them.
Saying the word ‘pornography’ will not take away your child’s innocence but in actual fact it will do the opposite. Using the correct word will preserve and empower them to know what to do when they see it and they will not feel guilty or ashamed and hide it from you, the significant adult in their world, when they do.
By saying the word ‘pornography’ at a young age, conversations will become more open and shame-free. Children will learn that the topic is not taboo and that it can be spoken about in the household, rather than remain secretive, avoided or hidden. Research tells us that 81% of Australian students in the early years, and most of the young students in Moriah College, have access to the internet, especially through access to smart phones, portable devices and general media. Because of this, it is more important than ever to start the “p” conversation with our children when they are young. Times have changed and it’s much easier to access or to be shown pornography, whether by accident or by well-intentioned childhood curiosity.
It is important that children are educated earlier and more purposefully on the sophisticated content that comes their way. The greatest challenge, however, is that education about concepts historically reserved for teenagers, needs to be delivered to 6–12-year-olds in a manner that is adjusted to consider the incongruence between the chronologically young age of the audience and the mature nature of the ideas being presented to them. A guide on how to approach these ideas with children is helpful and provides the courage and framework for discussion.
How to talk to young children about pornography
Always have a plan about what you want to achieve through your discussion. Decide on a good location for the discussion or select an activity to do with your child while discussing. A walk, drive, or even an activity is a good time to open such a discussion.
- Starting the discussion
Leading child psychologist Justin Coulson recommends the following approach to start a chat about pornography:
- ‘I don’t really know what to say, but we have to have a talk about sex and pornography.’
- ‘I read an article today that said kids are seeing pornography at really young ages. Can I talk to you about it?’
- ‘I want to talk with you about one of those awkward topics. Is that OK?’ (They rarely say ‘no’, but if they do, respect that, and then set up a time where you can talk.)
Age-appropriate books are a useful vehicle for delivering this content. One such suggestion is Holly Anne Martin’s Hayden-Reece Learns What To Do If Children See Private Pictures or Private Movies. The eSafety website and other such platforms provide a range of books that suit each age group.
- Opportunities for discussion
Music clips, television, online games, YouTube, and social media are frequently provocative or explicit in their depiction of, or reference to, pornographic content. Parents are able to point them out and use the opportunity to open a discussion about pornography and how children can manage associated challenges.
- Select a narrative to use with children when discussing pornography
The narrative selected must suit the age of the child.
Early Years narrative
If you ever see nude pictures or videos on a computer or iPad, this is called pornography. This is not safe or good to look at. It’s definitely not for kids because they show people often hurting each other or touching each other’s private parts. If you see them, I will be really proud of you if you tell me. You won’t be in trouble. I am telling you this because I want you to be safe and pornography is dangerous.
Upper Primary or Pre-Teens
We have spoken about sex and the people you have seen in these videos are actors who are paid to hurt each other while they are having sex. It looks like they are having fun but it’s not real.
What to do if you discover your child has engaged with pornography
- Listen, don’t judge
Whether your child stumbles across pornography, seeks it out, or is shown it by a friend or older sibling, listen to what they are saying and take your cues from them. Let your child know you are there to help them, no matter what. Listening will also help you understand their attitudes and help you to respond to specific issues. You might also want to have a standard response ready to respond to a disclosure, such as:
“You might not want to tell me all the details, but if we can talk honestly about what’s happened, I promise I will listen and stay calm. No matter what happens, we will always talk to work out what you need and I will still love you.”
- Remain calm, even if you don’t feel that way
Be reassured that their curiosity about sexuality education is normal and it’s a healthy thing, and try not to freak out! Stay engaged with your children and keep the discussion open and continuous, instead of only raising discussion when you think or know they have connected with pornography.
- Ask open-ended questions
Ask children questions about what they know about pornography and how they feel to help you to gauge your child’s level of knowledge and open a dialogue instead of a lecture.
- ‘Have you heard the word pornography? What do you know about it?’
- ‘Do any of the kids at school ever talk about it?’ (Sometimes questions about your child’s behaviour may be too confronting, so asking about their peers feels safer.) ‘What do they say?’
- ‘Have you ever seen it?’ If they have seen it, ask, ‘Did someone show it to you? Or did you find it yourself?’ Try to find out what you can about how they found it and why they were searching for it.
- If you know your child has been exposed to (or is viewing) pornography, it is better to say, ‘When I found you looking at pornography the other night…’ rather than, ‘Have you seen pornography?’
- If they have seen it, reassure them they are not in trouble. Ask: ‘When you saw it, how did it make you feel?’ Discuss those feelings.
- Check if your child has any other questions or if you have explained things enough for them.
- Let your child know that any question is OK to ask — nothing is off limits. This is true even when you might have to send them to someone else to find the answers.
Conclusion: Look at challenge and complexity through a positive lens.
Our Upagers most certainly bring a challenging dimension to the world of parenting today. This is not through their own intention but rather because of the ubiquitous nature of technology and media in their world and the sexually explicit content that winds its way through each modality. The positive-lensed glasses that we can wear as the adults guiding our children, is that we understand fully what our children are exposed to and how this happens. It might be through a young child informing their young friend on what an older sibling showed them, or it might be through an innocent word search that resulted in the viewing of pornographic imagery. Similarly, a child can be sent images by others or come across images via Snapchat, games, or in a social platform. It is also important to make our own homes and schools as safe as possible by setting rules and boundaries. Such rules stipulate that no inappropriate images are shared in the household between household members or friends who visit. Devices are only to be used in public or shared spaces. It is important to monitor your child’s browser history and to take advantage of the parental controls available on computers, modems, and other devices, and ensure the ‘safe search’ mode is enabled on browsers. Explain the reasons for putting controls in place so that children don’t craft a workaround or hack to access what they wish to see. Similarly, adults need to ensure that children are unlikely to come across inappropriate content on their own devices. The office for eSafety advises that adults should always use discretion and that password protecting of adult devices and the deletion of browser histories or avoiding the auto-complete function in browsers serves to protect children in a household.
Expert research, and my experience in the field, reveals that children demonstrate a range of responses to encountering pornography. They can be frightened, upset, and recoil from this experience, or they can become deeply interested, or even addicted to the experience. Open, honest, skilled discussion and supportive adjustment is the way to bring our young back into good health and balance. Help is at hand if we are uncertain of what to do next, so simply reach out to the professionals within Moriah College or the affiliated organisations such as Ysafe or Amazing Me. Additionally, shame and embarrassment are not necessary, as the challenge of young children encountering sexually explicit media inclusive of its pornographic element appears to be almost inevitable and is a pervasive area of concern. In the same way as parents explained the facts of life to children in the past, they need to alert children to the misleading messages about sexual practices and gender they could encounter which could give them the wrong idea about sex and intimate relationships. Keep your communication going in the right way and put those filters onto your home media in an effort to future-proof our next generation of leaders, Generation Alpha.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.