Just a few weeks earlier, Jesse was excited to start grade five and share with his friends all the good stories he had from summer camp and playing baseball. But this past week, Jesse's father noticed his son's behaviour was changing quite dramatically. Usually eager to share what he was learning in math and science, Jesse gave a simple shrug of his shoulders and said, "It was pretty boring to be honest, Mom" when asked how the class science experiment went.
Figuring he was just in a bad mood that evening, Jesse's father waited until the weekend to ask how he was enjoying getting to know his new classmates. Even more telling that something was seriously wrong, Jesse responded, "Michael acts like a $#*&!!"
This withdrawn attitude and profanity came as a complete to shock to Jesse's parents. Where had their son heard this kind of language? Why was he disengaging from the class? Were his peers the problem? Conscious of not wanting to over-react, they agreed that closely monitoring the situation was the best course of action for the time being.
Then the family iPad started going missing from the usual spot on the kitchen counter. They searched high and low one night, only to find it back on its stand in the morning.
Jesse claimed he had not used it. Strange. But the next night, it was gone again.
Jesse's parents were unprepared for what they found in the search history when the device appeared in its usual spot again. Several adult X-rated sites had been visited over the past month. But Jesse was only ten! Was Jesse's recent negative behaviour related? What were they to do?
Unfortunately, this sort of scenario is probably more common than we would like to believe. By age 15, children are more likely than not to have seen online pornography according to an extensive research study of adolescents in the UK by Middlesex University. These young people were as likely to find pornography by accident as to find it deliberately. But, 46 per cent reported searching for it actively of the 1001 children and young people that participated.
This issue deserves attention because viewing pornography is harmful to children's mental well-being and influences how they believe they should behave in a relationship. In the Middlesex UK study, those who had viewed porn reported a mixture of emotions, including curiosity, shock and confusion. Younger children were more likely to report feeling disturbed and depressed by what they had seen. The study did not investigate what so many children may be stumbling across, but learning about sex from potentially degrading and violent depictions of it is reason for concern.
Free, accessible and anonymous
Children who are naturally curious about sexual matters may be inclined to look online. The Internet provides a degree of anonymity (both real and perceived), accessibility (always available), and affordability (free-to-view websites) that make it particularly powerful as a medium for viewing sexual content. What they are likely to be confronted with is a barrage of information in which informed, educational messages are outnumbered by adult sexual entertainment and pornography.
The mental and social consequence
Exposure to pornography has implications for adolescent sexual relationships including an increase in having multiple partners and substance use during sex. Adolescents who frequently visit erotic and sexually explicit websites are more likely to hold sexually permissive attitudes and accepting views on casual sex. In addition, some youth use pornography as an instructional resource, as a way to learn how to have sex, imitate what they saw, or ask a partner to perform what they saw.
What we can do and other support systems.
The Internet is a key part of adolescents' lives, and therefore parents, educators, and practitioners must make it a key topic in their discussions about sexual health. Comprehensive sex education programs that contain accurate, evidence-based information about abstinence as well as contraception can help youth delay onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, reduce the number of sexual partners, and increase condom and contraceptive use.
There are youth-focused websites with information on a variety of aspects of sexuality like www.sexetc.org, www.amplifyyourvoice.org, and www.scarleteen.com that may influence young people to steer clear of searching for explicit images and potentially dubious sources of information about sex.
Technologies and setting the right preferences can also assist in preventing pornography from reaching young eyes. Inappropriate TV programming can be restricted through devices like the V-Chip. And Google has a safe search mode that can be turned on to block Internet pornography. Most devices also have a family safety tool within the operating system.
Though tech solutions are recommended, the best tool remains close adult supervision and thoughtful conversations. An effective household rule is not allowing media devices in children's bedrooms as this allows parents to keep closer tabs on the material their children are viewing. However, spying on your child's Internet activity could alienate them and spur them to become even more secretive, whereas asking them about it can lead to a more productive and honest dialogue.
We need to act to restrict their access to harmful sexual material, but also ensure that they have spaces in which to discuss and learn about safe relationships and sex. If we avoid talking about this issue, we are ignoring the many young people it is affecting.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
Follow Dr. Shimi Kang on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drshimikang