Preteens, sex and the Internet — oh, my

Preteen children have discovered sex on the Internet. Internet entries for “sex” and “porn” are the fourth and sixth most popular items searched by children 8 to 12 years of age, according to an August report by Symatec, based upon its OnlineFamily service that lets parents monitor their children’s online activities, including Web searches. By the age of 11, two out of every three youngsters in France have viewed a pornographic movie, according to a 2008 French study. What does this mean and how should parents respond?

Parents fear that Internet usage by preteens will result in victimization by sexual predators. That fear is unfounded. The group at highest risk for sexual enticement by adults is adolescent girls with a history of sexual abuse. These girls are looking more for emotional support than for sexual relationships, but enter into the latter to achieve the former. Physical force is not involved in 95 percent of these cases.

Preteens cruise the Internet for “porn” and “sex” for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they are just curious about concerns they can’t discuss with their parents. Girls are curious about their periods or pregnancy issues. Boys are concerned about the size of their genitals, body hair and what sexual behaviors are normal. In recent years, I’ve seen an increasing number of preteens ask questions about homosexuality, sexual identity and various types of sexual behavior.

Preteens also use the Internet for sexual excitement. With an extraordinary number of preteens having private access to computers, these children view images that were unavailable to previous generations. Some of these children have described Web sites that are unimaginable to me as an adult. The impact on children’s behavior and moral values won’t be known for quite some time, but I can’t believe it’s positive.

I’ve found that most parents are both naive and irresponsible about their children’s Internet lives.

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Here is what parents should be doing:

1. Monitor Internet use of young children. A recent report by Ofcom revealed that 20 percent of children aged 5 to 7 have unsupervised use of the Internet. Sixteen percent of preteens have computer access in their bedrooms. Young children should not use the computer without close adult monitoring. It’s just too risky, even for well-adjusted children from good homes.

2. Begin sexuality education when your child is a toddler. Responsible parents begin talking about sexual issues with their children at an early age, and continue that dialogue throughout their childhoods. Use news events as a way to begin these discussions, even if it involves sensitive issues. Most parents underestimate their children’s knowledge and interest about sex. Be casual in your approach, communicating to your children that you are comfortable about these sensitive topics.

3. Become computer literate. Many parents tell me that their children know more about computers than they do. Please don’t be proud of that fact. You can’t monitor what you don’t understand.

As with any technology, Internet access has the potential for either helping or harming our children. It’s time for parents to be more aggressive in protecting our children from these risks.

Gregory Ramey, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at The Children’s Medical Center of Dayton. For more of his columns, visit www.childrensdayton.org/ramey.

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