How to keep kids safe online and build trust

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Over the weekend, an article came out in the Daily Mail  from the UK discussing children as young as ten who are fighting pornography addiction. While this might have been news for the general public, this is something that is common knowledge in the field of sexual addiction treatment. The age of those addicted to pornography continues to get younger and younger.

Many parents, when faced with the either the media buzz or the reality of what their child is doing online, look for resources to help. The most common resource in this arena is filtering software. Traditional filtering software blocks access to certain websites or types of content. Depending on the software, a parent can block content via a pre-determined age delineation, block specific web pages, block app downloads, block social media usage and get a report of what sites their child is visiting on their phone, tablet and computer. Another option for parents are “spying” apps. These apps make the parent privy to every single thing that happens on the device. Parents can read emails, text messages, instant messaging, etc.

While these apps can be helpful in some cases and are created to help increase safe digital use, they are not fail safe and may not be the best option for a child depending on their age. The major flaw in any type of monitoring app is that a teen is likely to figure out a way around it. The digital native generation is often more tech savvy than their parents. As soon as an app comes out for a device, there are youtube videos published that will teach the child how to get around it. A monitoring app only stops a child from watching pornography on their own device. If they don’t get around it on their phone, for example, they can still get access to inappropriate content on a friend’s device. As the Daily Mail article explains, one child accessed the neighbor’s wifi when his parents took away his device.

I think that blocking or filter software can be very helpful in some cases. Often, a parent will install the software and think that all is well. They then do not talk to their child about content online, digital sexuality or cyberbullying. There is the thought that “if I put on the app, my child will be safe and I don’t have to deal with it.” This is very faulty thinking. Even if the app decreases your child’s access to digital sexuality, it should NEVER be used as a replacement for discussion about the topic. Filtering or blocking software is something that I would employ for younger children when you want to prevent inadvertent access to adult content online. This method is great for what Dr. Laurence Steinberg calls the starting the engine phase of adolescent brain development. In this phase, when puberty first arrives, the young teenage brain lacks a braking system and self control.

However, as a teenager gets older and his or her brain continues to develop, they begin to learn and work to master self control. This is the time to start to develop trust. If you, as a parent, filter your child’s content until she or he is 18 and never talk about it or give them a chance at self mastery, you can potentially set them up to have problems when they are on their own, in college or generally without strong adult supervision. Continuing to completely filter technology does nothing to foster the growth of trust in the relationship between parent and child. Instead of using blocking software or spying on a teen, a parent could institute a transparency policy. Perhaps there is no filter but the parent has open access to all content on the phone if they wish to see it. This technique, when used in concert with open and frequent communication can be effective and works to build a trusting relationship between parent and child.

If a parent wishes to continue to monitor the content of their child, an app such as PocketGuardian might be a better option. This app provides parents with an alert that there is content on the child’s phone that is potentially sexual or bullying without giving the parent the actual content. This app allows the parent to have a discussion with the child about digital use while maintaining some level of privacy for the child.

Ultimately, the decision to filter, block or monitor your child’s phone, tablet and/or computer is a very personal one. The monitoring industry will tell you that it is a wise decision and will protect your child. This is likely true for some children. What we do know from both clinical work and the research is that, where there is a will there is a way, and monitoring is not terribly effective for protecting children online. The research also tells us that open and honest communication with parents and a good parental relationship is a protective factor against high risk sexual behavior.

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