My 15-year-old occasionally watches porn. I know this for two reasons. First, he is 15 with access to the internet. And second, I've asked him, "Have you seen porn?" And he told me he had. So that was pretty definitive.
Obviously, some parents would be upset at this. They might protest if their kids had social media accounts they weren't allowed to look at. Or if their kids were pretty much looking at screens 24/7. But that's not me.
If our son is awake, he's got a device out. We don't limit screen time. He texts while we have dinner, plays games in the car, and looks at YouTube while watching television. Yes, two screens at once! He is plugged in, bathed in blue light, Snapchatting, Instagramming, and fairly knowledgeable about the sex stuff. Cue the Jaws theme.
So why do we let our son look at the screens unrestrained, even unto the all-ages material? There are two main reasons. First, we believe it's good for him in a lot of ways. And second, it's good for our relationship with him. Conventional wisdom is that screens are unhealthy, dangerous, and prevent families from communicating with one another. But we've found that the opposite is true. Refusing to police our son's internet use and monitor him all the time has made it much easier to talk to him, about what he does both online and off.
Is screen time really all that bad?
It's hard to keep up with all the evils supposedly perpetrated by exposure to screens, but we still don't limit screen time. The internet, video, and television are blamed variously for eye strain, sleep disruption, obesity, and depression. However, the evidence for most of these ill-effects are not especially convincing and often mix correlation with causation. Instead of the internet causing depression, depressed kids may simply use the internet more. The EU Committee on Consumer Safety and Health, Environmental, and Emerging Risks concluded there's no evidence of direct adverse health effects from LEDs emission in normal use. Similarly, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK told families that there's no real evidence screens pose a risk to children in this article in The Guardian.
Parents can be so obsessed with worrying about the dangers of screens that they fail to notice the massive, overwhelming, obvious benefits of the internet. The web is just about the most amazing tool for communicating and sharing information since the invention of the printing press. Our son has used it throughout his childhood to stay in touch with friends and learn an incredible amount.
Recently, for example, he's been watching a history video series about Julius Caesar. He watches Philosophy Tube regularly; recommendations there led him to read the plays No Exit and The Arsonist over the summer. And he watches lots of films; he just rewatched Inception and Rango. (As a pop culture critic who makes his living partly through bingeing Netflix content, I can hardly kick.)
Sometimes he recommends shows to us, even. He got us hooked on Mozart in the Jungle, a wonderful Amazon comedy about classical music and sex. He watched it by himself, then cheerfully watched it again with us. Which yes, meant we were watching some sex scenes with him.
Skip the ongoing power struggle of monitoring.
Admittedly, watching these scenes is a little uncomfortable, but it's an educational opportunity, too. In the first place, it gave us a chance to emphasize that queer desire and sex are good and normal. It's not something to be freaked out about or to mock. And more broadly, it gave us a chance to show him that we think sex and sexuality, in general, are normal. He knows it's something he can discuss with us.
It's true that sexual exploration or sexual experimentation on the internet is not completely safe. Still, it's indisputably safer than sexual exploration off the internet. The general scientific consensus is that the chances of getting pregnant via sexting are 0.0000%. More importantly, when you don't limit screen time and turn it into a battle, it's much more likely that your child will feel comfortable talking to you about what they're doing with their screens. It might actually lead to them talking about what they're doing when they're not looking at their screens as well.
Imposing strict screen limits or taking away your child's phone is a good way to turn your family life into an extended, miserable power struggle. Even worse is installing spyware and tracking your kid's online activity. There's no surer way of telling your children you don't trust them and don't respect their personal boundaries than stalking them online. Parents should be making it clear to kids that their consent is important, and that no one has the right to bully them, or humiliate them, or invade their personal space. But how can you teach them those lessons if you're bullying them, humiliating them, and invading their personal space?
Not imposing rules can actually build trust and respect.
When you police internet use, you're encouraging your kids to lie to you and to mistrust you. You're telling them that you're looking to punish them for their curiosity, their interests, and possibly for their sexuality. That's a good way to ensure that they won't come to you when they have questions or are in trouble, or when someone else violates their consent, in ways big or small.
In contrast, if you teach your children that you trust them, it could turn into them trusting you. Perhaps they'll tell you they watch porn...if they do. Maybe they'll tell you what they learned about consent in sex ed, or that condoms are freely available at school (which we were thrilled to learn.) And they could even tell you who they're dating, and who in school has a crush on who.
We do have some rules about screen use without having rules to limit screen time. We told our son in no uncertain terms that he couldn't look at his phone while crossing the street, for example (he agreed that he could see the logic there). But in most situations where you're not walking into oncoming traffic, the internet is an amazing resource. So, for that matter, is respect. Give your children the advantage of both.