What To Do About Kids And Porn And Smartphones?

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Sometimes I feel like a fossil. My wife informs me I’m 28. Let me tell you kids–back in my day, internet porn was different. We didn’t have smartphones. We didn’t have streaming video. You had to download low-def 30 second clips. Getting around paywalls was work.

All of which is to say that I take very seriously the absolutely unprecedented, and frankly terrifying, fact of the ubiquity of hardcore porn on all our devices. There is no doubt that porn is dehumanizing, addicting and damaging to the soul, the psyche, and the body. And what porn means today, given its “quality”, quantity and ubiquity, represents a qualitatively different phenomenon than even I grew up with, let alone what has existed since the dawn of humanity. We–collectively, our society–are embarking on a massive social experiment the consequences of which we can scarcely imagine.

It’s partly this that makes me think we need a different approach than what I see most “traditionalist” families take with regard to children and porn.

I am riffing off of this story by a Mom flagged by Rod Dreher. Despite her pricey (!) internet filters, her seven-year-old googled “tits” on his iPod and saw what he saw. The mother cried. Both this mother and Rod are of one mind: the solution is more: parents should be more vigilant, more policing, and do everything to make sure their children never see porn.

I cried because I can never get back that bit of innocence he lost way, way too early,” the mother writes. Her post is titled “Soldier Up, Mom”, a revealing metaphor. “A Dallas friend of ours mentioned that she and her husband worked hard to protect the innocence of their young child,” Rod writes. 

And this theme leaves me a little uneasy. As I said above, I absolutely view hardcore porn as extremely dangerous. That being said, we should nonetheless be real and set a few things straight.

First of all, kids are not innocent. In second grade, my schoolmates and I talked about sex. And this was before the internet. We had no idea what we were talking about, but we talked about it. Kids are not dumb. They understand. For most of human history, kids got their sex education really early and naturally. In Flaubert’s Three Tales, there’s a line I’ll never forget, about a farm girl who is being courted by a man: “She was not innocent in the way of our mademoiselles, the animals had taught her.” For most of human history, families lived together in one room, and people had plenty of kids. I’m sure the parents took what precautions they could, but, well, what happened happened.

More generally, kids are very good at cruelty. Ask anyone who’s been bullied. It doesn’t start in the teenage years. Morality is a part of culture, and it is learned. Anyone who has been around children long enough knows that they have in fact a tremendous capacity for casual cruelty. Here, perhaps, is the innocence: innocent of the learned qualms that haunt even the criminals.

I say this because I view it as unhealthy to idealize children. Children are not animals, but nor are they angels. They are children. And certainly (to my surprise, I have seen it in myself), a great drive of a great many parents is to want to keep their children younger and more “innocent” than they are. It is, in the final analysis, a condescension: the parent sees the child not as a human being, but as an object. Parents enjoy nothing more than fostering learned incompetence in their children. This is the drive behind the Santa Lie, or behind the “dollification” of children, dressing them up in beautiful, unpractical clothes. As I said, this is a tendency we all have, myself included. But we must be aware of it and fight it. Parents take tremendous and unhealthy pleasure in the idea of having their children be helpless and stunted.

Again, I am not downplaying the dangers of hardcore porn. But hardcore porn is hardcore porn. Apparently, this kid googled “tits” on his YouTube app. YouTube will not show R-rated material, or porn. I just searched “tits” on YouTube: it shows clips of covered up women with generous endowements. That is objectifying, and gross, and of no cultural or artistic and educational quality. But, let’s be honest, it’s not traumatizing. And certainly not “hardcore porn”. Sorry for being stereotypically French, but there’s nothing wrong with children seeing women’s breasts. (Yes, in the sophomorically-sexualized context of YouTube clips, it’s not great, but is it worth going to DEFCON 3?) I mean, we’ve all seen National Geographic. One of the best animated movies of all times is My Neighbor Totoro. My daughter demands to watch it all the time. If you google it, you will almost only find comments outraged by the fact that there’s a sequence where the family takes a bath together (the father and two young daughters). There are countless cultures where the naked body is not a taboo.

There needs to be a balance: Christianity teaches us that God created us with good bodies, destined for glorification. Part of education is teaching kids to have a healthy relationship with their own bodies. Utterly panicking when your kid sees a clip of cleavage bouncing in slow motion is the best way to teach them–despite your best intents–that bodies are dirty.

We need to get some perspective: Americans today live in a country where a majority of people think leaving kids alone in the park should be criminalized. We need to take account of the astonishing risk-aversion of contemporary American parenting culture, and course-correct. Even real threats, like hardcore porn, should be assessed rationally and coolly, and not overreacted to. I encourage you, next time you are groped by a TSA agent, to meditate on the human capacity for utterly irrational overreaction to even very real and dangerous threats. If we are Catholics, we should also take into account, and correct for, the Protestant Puritanism of American culture, which is the source of fears of the body and now of rampant sexualization of everything.

Another point is that kids are resilient. Not to be overdramatic, but the problem Christian kids in Iraq and Syria have to deal with is watching their parents get shot. Habitual use of hardcore porn is incredibly dangerous. But habitual use is not the same thing as a once-upon-a-time encounter. There are countless families where kids have accidentally stumbled upon their parents in flagrante delicto and those kids grow up fine. This is not the same as hardcore porn, obviously, but we should still have some perspective. It’s impossible to tell ahead of time what a kid will be traumatized with. I have a friend who watched a gory horror film after dark as a kid and had no problems, but had nightmares for months because of a Disney villain. I am not downplaying any danger, I am merely saying that we should have a risk management approach. We should take the necessary precautions, but also accept that not everything will be perfect, and that kids survive.

All of which brings me to the question of what is education for? The goal of education, I firmly believe, is the adult your child will grow into. Everything must be seen from this vantage point. The goal of education is not to produce children with certain characteristics; it is to produce adults with certain characteristics. Now, one of the characteristics we should aim for is a healthy, integrated sexuality, and that means taking steps to protect children from porn. But that is not the perspective I see in the posts I linked to. In the posts I linked to, the goal is to preserve children’s “innocence” for as long as humanly possible (but why is not clear). This leads to a distorted perspective where the only goal with regard to the child and sexuality is to preserve her from everything having to do with sexuality and the body for as long as humanly possible (forever?).

The problem with that perspective is that (a) it won’t work; or, as my mother put it, “If I don’t do my kid’s sexual education, it will be done by someone else, badly.” This is the 21st century. Kids have friends. Even in the middle of your Benedict-Compound, kids will have friends, access to smartphones, wifi, and so on. No internet filter is perfect, and kids are very good at circumventing those kinds of blocks. (Of course, a monomaniacal focus on such ramparts will, on many kids, only produce an urge to climb them.); and (b) it doesn’t, at least by itself, produce a healthy sexuality.

And it has other costs. Both people I’ve linked agreed that kids must only access the internet from a screen in a central place  where parents can see it, and not alone in their room. Put it quite simply, if I hadn’t had the internet (and TV!) in my room as a kid, I wouldn’t be writing here. I wouldn’t have learned English, and I wouldn’t have gotten a passion for social exchange on the internet. And if I hadn’t learned English and gotten a passion for the internet, I would never have had the career I did. Again, this is not to play down the dangers of hardcore porn, but only to note that there are no free lunches and everything has tradeoffs. By definition, a monomaniacal focus on one side of the equation will obscure everything else. We need to be rational and level-headed.

All of which leads me to think that this is a problem that must be managed. Given the realities of technology and kids’ resourcefulness, a “my kid will never ever see any porn ever not once in his life and I must do everything in my power to stop it” goal is quite simply impossible, and its pursuit will lead to excessive costs.

In particular, even though I sometimes oscillate on this, on balance, I really do think I don’t want to police my children’s internet use. For starters, because one of the primary goals of parenting (especially if you intend to have many kids, as I do), is to eliminate distractions and points of conflict. As a parent, the less you have to care about, the healthier you will be (which ain’t nothin’) and the healthier your kids will be. Parents, like governments, should have very few rules and enforce those rules absolutely, over the alternative of too many rules which then can only be enforced randomly and haphazardly, the latter wreaking havoc on the minds of everyone involved. This is not, by itself, decisive, but it’s nonetheless important. The second is that internet is an enormous opportunity for children to learn and grow (especially if you plan to unschool them, as we do). The third and last is that the best (only) way for your children to grow into responsible, autonomous persons is to treat them as responsible, autonomous persons.

That being said, I am coming around to the opinion that parents should set up filters, because porn now is different from porn when I was growing up, and its addictive and destructive properties have been increased manifold.

But like terrorism, we should seek to manage porn rather than eliminate it altogether, because if we seek the latter we will end up doing very destructive and silly things. It is soul-destroying nonsense to make hundreds of millions of people take off their shoes to board a plane because of one shoe bomber.

Finally, it seems to me that the best defense against porn is education. Kids should know about sex, know what it is for, know what porn is for, and know why it is wrong and destructive. Simply setting up a filter and a “THOU SHALT NOT” is–is it not obvious–an invitation to a jailbreak.

This goes back to one of my recurrent themes: sex education should be early and often. This was always true, but to my mind, the ubiquity of porn has made it an absolute necessity. If you don’t do your child’s sex education, someone else WILL, most likely the internet.

The first time my mother had “the talk” with me, I was around five years old. It was the late ’80s/early ’90s, a height of the AIDS panic, and there were billboards and PSA ads everywhere about condoms. At first she tried to dodge my questions, but eventually, she explained to me: what a condom is, what it is for, what you do with it. She even bought some to show me. There were other talks over the years, and by the time I was 10 I knew everything I had to know.

In the final analysis, the best way to protect your kids against porn is to make them UNDERSTAND why it is bad for them. And the fact that they will be encountering porn at a very early age means that you must get in there before. As my Mom put it, “if a child asks himself a question, it’s too late.”

I do think my Mom was a bit too laissez-faire, because porn was different in those days. I think there should be clear prohibitions, and even filters (albeit filters not too broad). But your kids will dodge the filters if they’re not on board with what you’re doing. And a monomaniacal focus on total “preservation of innocence” will incur costs in excess of benefits. In the end, I really don’t want to have to police what my kids do online.

And while I do agree that ubiquitous hardcore porn is very dangerous, overreaction is more dangerous. And most importantly, the only answer to this challenge–as to every other challenge–is education to build up our children into righteous and healthy adults.