Anna [aged 11]: Write down ‘69' on the internet.
Researcher: Why? Have you already googled it before?
Laura [aged 10]: Me too. And I regret it. I thought it was a good thing, but it isn't.
Researcher: Why did you do it?
Laura: Because Anna told me to Google it to see what it was.
Anna: She was asking what it was. I didn't want to explain to her and so I told her to go look it up on the internet.
[Laura is searching on the internet using Anna's smartphone]
Anna: You have to click on images. Give me my smartphone. Now, that is recorded in my internet history.
Laura: This is not my phone.
Researcher: Anna, are you cleaning your internet history?
Anna: Yeah. I'd better. My father usually checks my smartphone.
I vividly remember, when I was around nine years old, turning to my mother, who was cooking dinner, and asking her: "What does having sex mean?". Besides almost cutting her finger off, I've retained the memory of her gazing at me with a mix of panic and fear. I was a pre-internet child, so I could not easily look for answers on Google, like Anna and Laura did. But, because my mother's explanations did not quite satisfy my curiosity, and because I felt like she was not telling me the whole story, I searched for satisfactory answers in physical books, like encyclopaedias.
Thirty years later, when children run to adults for answers (about sex or any other subject) and their explanations do not resonate with them, they can easily and rapidly look for evidence on the internet. The internet is a very powerful and wonderful tool, but it is not perfect. In a couple of minutes or less, you can find just about anything, as the introducing conversation, taped during a focus group with 10-12 year-old children, depicts.
Sexuality is a key dimension in the distinction between children and adults' worlds. This distinction became very blurred with technological advances and the growth of the pornographic industry, now providing children with a much easier, wider and freer access to sexually explicit material than ever before. Despite being one of parents' top concerns, and one of the topics that tends to dominate the public discourse, children are effectively and actively accessing the internet on a daily basis and encountering material online that is intended for adults – pornography – as a result of peer pressure, curiosity or accidentally while just randomly browsing.
This dialogue above realistically illustrates what children talked about in those meetings. The researcher-participant relationship had evolved to the point where the children felt comfortable to speak their minds and share their thoughts without fear of being judged. On a personal level, this was an extraordinary learning opportunity to get a closer standpoint and participate in the complexities of their digitised daily lives, and to be counted as an adult they came to for advice.
Besides pornography and sex, children talked about everyday things and more serious matters involving: (cyber)bullying, abusive behaviours like taking one's picture and posting it without permission, the spread of rumours, pranks, fear of being traced or videotaped without their knowledge, hacking and stealing passwords, and talking with strangers.
When I share snippets of the children's narratives in talks with parents and technicians, I can easily identify who is who by recognising my mother's look in the first ones' eyes, and getting a nod from the second. Regarding children and technology, adults experience contradictory feelings partly because they lack reference points from their own childhood, but mostly because it threatens the romantic idea of childhood. Thus, their first reaction and emotional response is to demonise it or to restrict access, which prejudices the adult-child relationship, possibly leading to a lack of trust, conflicts and tensions.
Experience from doing research with children (from early ages) demonstrates that when kids feel that their digital autonomy is threatened, they prove to be very resourceful in finding ways around parental interventions. To make matters more complicated, as the use of technology rapidly becomes more portable, private and connected, parents feel less in control and desperately look for easy-to-use solutions to alleviate their anxieties and keep their children safe from these and other "corrupting" contents.
Going back to the dialogue depicted above, children's accounts also reveal the contradictions of a society that gives children an unprecedented autonomy, much enhanced by portable devices, and on the other hand, expects them to be a kind of "bibelot child", close to the eighteenth century representation of the child as pure, innocent and spiritual.
Although research is not completely conclusive that pornography is harming children's development, it is, however, important for parents to inform themselves about what kind of content children are browsing online. For instance, I can tell for sure that if your child is led by natural curiosity to write down the keyword "sexo" (sex, in Portuguese) on the internet, Google presents in the first five results pornographic video-sharing websites with free and easy access to categorised lists of contents, including child pornography, in the format of photos, video clips, streaming media, and live webcam.
Parents influence their children's sexual choices by showing that they care about the issue and their sexual wellbeing. Thus, it may be worthwhile for parents to educate themselves about pornography to build a pedagogical and positive dialogue with the child, fostering a critical and healthy perspective about sexuality.
Find out more about the work of the Portuguese Safer Internet Centre (SIC), including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services.