I’m watching television with my fifteen-year-old daughter, when she tells me that her friend Ella* watches gay male porn online.
Me: “Why on earth does she do that?”
Daughter: “Don’t really know. Thinks it’s risqué, I guess.”
In her new book Screenwise, Devorah Heitner gives lots of real-life examples to help parents understand their children’s ever-changing digital world and although a straight teenage girl watching gay male porn is not among them, the American author does devote several pages to the subject of kids and internet pornography.
Her line can be roughly summarised as follows: it is natural for youngsters to be curious, but if that curiosity leads them to view inappropriate adult content, it is more than reasonable for their parents to let them know their views.
But what if you don’t know about your 15-year-old’s porn habit? I’m sure Ella’s mum falls into this category. My own daughter only stumbled across the evidence when she was at Ella’s one evening and went on her friend’s laptop to check out Topshop’s online store. Gay male porn sites showed up in the machine’s browsing history. But while Ella lets her mates use her laptop, she doesn’t extend the privilege to her mum. So she can count on Mum’s naivety, and carry on regardless.
How can parents become less naïve? There’s little doubt we should try and keep up. The research Heitner quotes in the book suggests that the average age of initial exposure to pornography is eleven. Should we covertly check our kids’ browsing histories? Use spy software, perhaps?
“It’s better to mentor than to monitor. You don’t want to catch your child doing the wrong thing, you want to teach them to do the right thing,” explains Heitner.
Therefore, if you want to know what your kids are up to on their devices, start, she says, by simply asking them.
“Pose open-ended questions about their social media encounters, and even if you are shocked by what they tell you, don’t overreact. Your message should be, yes, you will make digital mistakes, but I am here to guide you.”
Another way to engage with your kids’ digital lives is to ask them how to use an app such as Instagram (surely, I’m not the only adult never to have used this picture-sharing site?) and to give you positive and negative examples of its use.
“It’ll show you how they discern,” says Heitner.
But make sure you also bring positive examples of digital behaviour to the table. Do you get your kids to text for you when you’re driving? Do you break off conversations with them to send an email? Do you take phone calls during meal times?
Do you say “five more minutes” and then stay on your laptop for another hour? These are just some of the things which upset the children Heitner interviewed for her book.
As she puts it, “we all need to remember that the people in the room with you are more important that the ones buzzing in our pockets or in our hand.”
Most important, do you ask your kids’ permission before posting photos of them on Facebook or your Twitter feed? Heitner thinks we should. “It shows that you respect them and their privacy, and will hopefully encourage your child to think about how others feel when they are taking photos of their friends.”
Taking continuous photos is, of course, just one way in which increasing numbers of parents worry their children are becoming digitally addicted; their social skills shaped by the devices in their young hands; their childhoods disappearing down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos. Heitner also thinks many of us feel lost in what she calls the “digital dust” of our kids’ technological savvy. Conversations at my school gate confirm this. There’s definitely a growing fear among that parents that however hard they try to keep up with the latest apps and social trends, even their pre-pubescent children are always one step ahead.
Don’t succumb to the fear, says Heitner “Never assume you don’t know enough to get involved. You might not be tech savvy, but you have life wisdom, you know how to navigate conflict and to set boundaries, and that’s the supplement your kids need.”
When it comes to setting those boundaries, Jewish parents might have a slight advantage. One of the digital stresses felt most keenly by children is that they must be accessible and responsive at all times, that it’s not OK not to want to text or post. To which Heitner says unplug, Jewish-style. “Get into a Shabbat frame of mind and decide that for a certain amount of time every week, you won’t check emails or use your phone. It’s a great example to set your kids.”
She also posits a Jewish frame for embracing the tech phenomenon. “Encourage your kids to be aspirational in their digital lives, to use social media for social justice campaigns. There’s an app that lets you order take-away food, but the world is running out of water, so where’s the app for climate change? Think of tikkun olam digitally.”
And she has some Jewish-flavoured advice for the sexy pictures which teens, mostly girls, are sharing in ever greater numbers with their peers, images which might not fall into the category of “sexting” but which still feel inappropriate to most adults.
“When I speak to young women, I tell them they can be positive about their bodies, but modest at the same time. I think the notion of modesty can be re-appropriated in both a feminist and a Jewish way. So I say, you don’t need to express your sexual confidence by sending provocative pictures of yourself. You can enjoy your body without sharing a picture of it.”
In other words, a curiosity about sex and sexual feelings are a normal part of adolescent development. But some things are inappropriate and sharing sexy pictures is one of them. And so, it hardly needs stating, is watching online pornography.
*We have changed 'Ella's' name to spare her blushes.
Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World is published by Routledge.