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William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa an Ashoka and Linc fellow.  He has been monitoring the media for 16 years working on children and media issues for 12.  He recently presented at the 12th South African Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (SAPSAC) Conference on Online Victimisation of Children. William is also the father of two young boys.

We live in a world that is radically different to the world we grew up in, more so if you’re over the age of 30.  I’m not talking about all the changes in technology, or how our country has changed, I’m talking about the explosion of information we are exposed to and overloaded with.  One of the most disturbing effects of this overload is the likelihood that your child will be exposed to pornography and because most of us haven’t prepared them for it, they won’t know how to deal with it.

Why is your child likely to see pornography?

Extremely widespread access to social media chat rooms and to the internet via cell phones means that as parents it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate what our children access and when. Often they are exposed to sexual content accidentally via an MMS from a friend, an email, a link or on any of the social media sites.  Often such content is sent from other children.

When sex is forbidden and never discussed, but at the same time the messages conveyed via popular songs, music videos etc say its fun and stimulating, children’s curiosity can lead them to search for answers via a cell phone without anyone ever knowing. At some schools, we are aware that students often exchange addresses of porn sites with each other or in more extreme cases use their phones to film each other and then distribute these clips.

What can you do as a parent?

For younger children filters, passwords and adult supervision are highly recommended but with older kids  it ‘s much more complicated

Most children, 12yrs and older will know a nerd, who with a few instructive clicks can bypass any nanny security.  And on cell phones there is close to no protection at all. This age group needs to know how to distinguish what is appropriate and what isn’t.  They need critical media literacy skills, and to self regulate.   They also need parents who talk to them about sex and love and how pornography distorts what is real.

We need to explain that:

  • satisfying your partner is a good thing in sex, it isn’t about the “money shot”, its about sharing, caring, respecting and meeting each others needs.
  • a lot of porn is made for males to satisfy themselves in front of a screen, it is often demeaning to those involved, (usually women) and reinforces many negative stereotypes.
  • porn isn’t going to teach you great technique or how to be a better lover.  In fact, if you copy what they do in real life your partner will not be satisfied, they will be wondering why you are such a selfish doorknob.  They will also wonder why you are not practicing safe sex.

Parents who pretend it isn’t there or think children will never be exposed are just creating distance between their child’s reality and themselves.  The moment that distance gets bigger, children keep bigger secrets, the less communication the more remains unsaid and unknown and that is when children become more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

One last thing you can do, is learn how to use a cell phone – beyond dial and sms, ask your child or have a tech party with your friends and invite a nerd.

Before I end off, I need to make three key points.  Exposing a child to porn is a criminal offence under the Film and Publications Act.  Also any porn that has any kind of portrayal of children engaged in sex is also a criminal offence.  So any of you who get your kicks watching children in porn – know that you are actively participating in child abuse.  Don’t do it.  If you know someone who is or has- report them to the police.  Thirdly, I think we are hopelessly behind in our policy and child protection in those instances where children are exposed to sexual content that they have not sought out but that is the subject of another article.

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