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Kids and Online Access

“Why Can’t You Just Trust Me?” 

The question came from Sam, Jeff and Jenna’s 16-year-old daughter. 

Jeff was first exposed to pornography online when he was younger than Sam. He was on his family’s desktop, looking up something for school. He came across an ad for one of his favorite games and clicked on it, only it didn’t take him to the game as he’d expected. It opened a tab to a site with explicit pornography. From that day forward, Jeff wrestled intermittently with viewing online porn. 

So ever since his kids were little, Jeff has made a practice of installing Internet filters and accountability software on each of the family’s devices. But today Sam finally got her own iPhone and she wants more freedom to use her phone as she chooses. She insists she’s never looked at anything “bad” online and she can’t understand why her parents won’t trust her. 

Should they trust her?

Kids and Online Access

Kids today are growing up in a culture unlike any ever before in the history of the world. Other civilizations have been as sexually confused and explicit as ours. That’s not new. What is new, however, is that our culture is also almost universally connected through digital devices. Over 5 billion people around the globe have Internet access, and over 307 million people in the U.S. do. That’s 92% of the U.S. population. 

Just as significantly, the internet has become easier and easier to access. Gone are the days of sharing one (large and heavy) family computer plugged in and stationary in a public room in the house. If homes have a shared computer, it is often just one of many internet-accessible devices. In 2021, more than half of all internet users were accessing the internet with their phones.

In fact, according to a 2020 Pew Research study, children between 0 and 11 are using desktop and laptop computers less than any other devices:

Children using or interacting with TV88%
Children using or interacting with a computer tablet67%
Children using or interacting with smartphone60%
Children using or interacting with desktop or laptop44%

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Online Pornography Use

Unsurprisingly, with the ubiquity of the internet, pornography consumption has exploded.  

In the U.S. alone, adult and pornography websites are estimated to be a $1.1 billion industry. Since 2014, it’s grown year over year by an average of over 14%, outperforming the U.S. tech sector and the U.S. economy overall.  

A 2016 Barna study revealed that over 30% of all Americans not only come across pornography online, but actively seek it out at least monthly. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that pornography consumption is higher among younger generations than older ones. Nearly 70% of young males (ages 13-24) and just over 30% of young females actively seek out porn online at least monthly. 

To put it bluntly, no parents in the history of the world have ever raised kids in an environment like this. Ever. 

So back to the question: “Why can’t you trust me?”


Each Kid Is Different

Sam’s question is a valid one and she’s right to ask it. Trust is huge when considering how to navigate our kids’ Internet usage. If a son or daughter is secretive or deceptive about online activity, this is certainly reason for concern. Likewise, if a young adult seems to have little to no awareness about his or her own screentime or seems to be turning to screens to regulate negative emotions, these are red flags as well. Conversely, if a son or daughter has a healthy track record of being open and honest about online activity, he or she pays attention to how and when they’re turning to screens, and if he or she is demonstrating healthy ways to regulate emotion, these are good signs to be taken into consideration.

[As a helpful aside, I encourage parents to frame up these conversations with their kids around positive goals that address larger matters than just screentime or device use. These larger positive goals are the basis for the smaller conversations you have and the boundaries you put in place on your kids’ devices. To paraphrase Jesus, boundaries are made for your kids, not your kids for boundaries. So for example, you want your kids to learn to treat men’s and women’s bodies with dignity, and that’s why you use discretion about the kinds of shows you allow them to watch. You want your kids to learn to value being where they are, and that’s why you might leave your phones in the car when going on a family hike. You want your kids to know their deep value in God’s eyes, and that’s why you talk with them about the pitfalls of seeking online likes, friends, or followers.]

As your kids demonstrate they are progressing (not perfect!) in these areas, you can explore giving them more and more freedom to make their own decisions with their devices. In other words, as they grow in self-discipline, your discipline is needed less; as they grow in self-awareness, you can give them room to move further from your watchful eye. 


Can You Trust the Internet?

However, a kid’s trustworthiness and emotional health are only part of the equation. The other consideration is the trustworthiness of the online world. In all seriousness, Jeff and Jenna might respond to their daughter by saying, “We do trust you, but we do not trust every person and company that has access to you online.” 

Jeff has personal experience with this and can even share his own story of being exposed to pornography as an example. If there ever was a time parents could place their kids in front of a screen without concern about what they might see, now is not that time. If there ever was a time parents could neglect talking with their kids about sex, that time is not now. If ever parents could let their kids navigate the culture alone, that time is not now. 

Is the online world a safe place that will respect any of our boundaries, support us in our journey toward virtue, look out for our mental health, or nurture our relationships with God? No. It’s convenient, but it’s not Eden. Whatever Jeff and Jenna decide to do about a filter or accountability software on their daughter’s iPhone, they (and Sam!) need to consider this question too.  


Our Sacred Trust

As Christian parents today, we can know and be grateful for the wonderful online resources available to their kids at the swipe of a finger. When I think about the Christian podcasts that have poured into my soul, the apps that have made my life better, or the organizations and people I am connected with because of their online presence, I’m grateful. At the same time, we also know that the online world is rife with pornographic, degrading, and harmful content, and that the way online commerce and algorithms work, we simply do not get to choose everything that comes across our (or our kids’) screens. 

None of us signed up to parent in such a unique time, but here we are. As Tolkien wrote, we do not get to choose the time in which we live, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Parenting our kids in a digital age is not a well-marked path, but parenting at all is a sacred trust, and now is our time.  With each individual son or daughter in our care, let’s seek to walk with Jesus as we try to teach them how to navigate toward what is good, true, and beautiful online and away from what is evil, false, and profane. 

Praying for our kids,
Josh

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