Parents are feeling forced to have the ‘birds and bees’ conversation with their children at a younger age than ever

It's vital that we talk to children about what they find on the internet

The Open Rights Group have said nearly one in five websites are blocked by government-promoted filters after David Cameron called for measures to stop online pornography ‘corroding childhood’.

Does this seem like an over-zealous reaction? Should we all be surprised by it?

Good questions to ask a digital audience. And here’s another one; should we all be shocked by the fact British parents in 2014 now claim they are being forced to have the ‘birds and bees’ conversation with their children while they’re still at primary school? On first glance yes we probably should be – especially if, like me, you had your version of it in an era when you had to head to a dodgy festival for images of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. These days a flick of the track pad is all you need.

According to new research by AVG Technologies, for four out of every five UK parents it is indeed the internet that’s being blamed for forcing them to discuss the facts of life with their children at a much younger age; the vast majority say it’s now happening by the time their kids are 11 while a fifth say the same is true when their children reach the age of just nine. Most feel it’s happening around five years earlier than they had theirs.

For me, and countless others of my generation brought up on a diet of Rainbow, Grange Hill and Crossroads, I just about got to finding out where babies came from; today the conversation is covering sex, puberty, and perhaps unsurprisingly, porn.

So parents are having to talk to children about pornography? Why?

It’s too tempting just to blame it on the internet – there’s so much more to it than that. Firstly, let’s not shy away from the fact that the innocence of children has been under threat for decades – the starter gun went off well before the internet became so entwined with our daily lives. More sexualised images have become available in newspapers and on the TV, in fact each year the content we consume has been pushing boundaries and testing our limits.

But few would deny that the internet has contributed to this process.  We applaud the amount of material that everyone, children included, can now find on the internet.  Even in primary schools children are encouraged to carry out little research projects looking things up online and for many it’s a reward to exercise their curiosity and look up things that catch their interest.  Often in their free time they’re becoming better internet users, many developing skills to rival those of their parents. In fact, some children know more about the net than parents. But that’s a double edged sword - while many parents would not want to suppress that enthusiasm it means that children can encounter more than the parents might wish.  Hence the pressure to talk these things through earlier.

Other research, from EU Kids Online, suggests it may not be a matter of children searching for sexual materials but that these, literally, pop up, or else when looking for one thing children suddenly find themselves directed to a site with material they know their parents consider 'inappropriate'.  This is where panic mode often sets in as many children said they thought their parents would not understand this can happen by accident, they feared getting told off and, the ultimate worry, losing their parents' trust.  So while the parents worry that the problem is the influence of the sexual images, many children see the problem as getting into trouble when it wasn't their fault.

To drive this point home, I was interested to see a study by the Railway Children charity which reveals how one in four children feel too scared to share worries with their parents. The survey spoke to 500 parents and 500 11-16 year olds in the UK, and concluded mums and dads aren’t broaching the heavier topics such as family change, divorce or death. It is pleasing though that the ‘sex talk’ is being discussed.

The EU Kids Online researchers looked at what parental approaches were more successful in reducing what risks children encountered online and reducing whether children were bothered by them.  Two things worked best - taking an interest in what children were doing, especially by talking to them, and making rules that restricted what they did. The problem was that protecting by rules had a downside. The children who lived in these homes used the internet for less things overall - in other words, they missed out on some potential benefits - and they developed less internet skills.  So the expert advice favoured engaging with children, talking about their actual experiences and potential experiences.

Parents need to understand that given the society beyond the internet in which children grow up, they may already be somewhat savvy at an earlier age regardless of what parents say about sensitive issues such as sex and porn.   While there are various technological aids to try to control what children encounter online, it looks like their effect is limited and ultimately this is getting more and more difficult to enforce as children go online in so many different ways.  Sometimes children are puzzled when their parents try to control internet content while the children point out that they can see something similar in 'real' life, offline.  The best way forward seems to be some good old fashioned talking to children - including taking time to listen to exactly what is worrying them.

Dr Leslie Haddon is a senior researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE. His research spanning 25 years has focused on people's use of ICTs and currently he is involved in the EU Kids Online and Net Children Go Mobile projects

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