Up to this point, my 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter had been interested only in playing games and watching kids’ shows on the ancient tablet we bought five years ago. I routinely left my computer running on my desk, never dreaming they would use it, much less for nefarious purposes.
Suddenly we were thrust into the reality that our kids are savvy enough to find things on the computer that we are not ready for them to see.
We knew something was up when my son called down from my office, “Mommy, how do you spell ‘naked?’ ” I immediately went to investigate. As I took the stairs two at a time, I had the naive thought that the boys were writing notes to the girls about a clubhouse, or making a map to a secret Pokémon treasure.
But as soon as I saw my daughter sitting at my desk and the other kids huddled around her, I knew they weren’t playing post office.
I shooed them away from the computer. “We don’t do screen time during a playdate,” I growled at my kids. “We certainly don’t search the word ‘naked.’ ” I didn’t even know my kids knew how to use a search engine.
They were subdued as they got ready for bed, no doubt worried about the looming punishment. I stood in the bathroom doorway and toggled between drafting my speech about Internet safety and berating myself for not having parental controls on the computer. How many articles had I read about getting ahead of this? Did I think my kids would never venture beyond “family programming” and Angry Birds?
And I held out hope that my husband’s forensics would reveal that the kids’ searches yielded nothing more objectionable than pictures of epic Lego towers or birthday cakes shaped like purses.
After a few minutes, my husband announced, “There’s good news and bad news.” The good news was that they spent most of their time looking at pictures of candy bars.
“The bad news is that they also searched the word ‘butt.’ ” He swiveled the screen so I could see the search results. I fought the urge to squeeze my eyes shut and preserve the illusion of my children’s everlasting innocence. Instead, I saw dozens of images of a well-known celebrity’s amply chronicled backside.
It could have been much worse. None of the pictures were fully naked or involved risqué acts. But regardless of what my kids turned up, we were facing a big parenting moment, and I wanted to get it right. My anxiety spiked when I realized I had 60 seconds to prepare for our first conversation about the dangers of the Internet. My goal was to set clear boundaries without stigmatizing sex or stoking a curiosity that would only fuel future secret searches.
If given more lead time, I would have talked to other parents, my therapist and the school counselor. Maybe I would have read the latest research about how to talk to school-age kids about Internet safety. But this moment, like so many others, was thrust upon us before we had the chance to nail down our talking points.
We gathered the kids for a family meeting. “It’s okay to be curious about bodies and wonder what they look like. And you’re right that the Internet is a place to find those kinds of pictures. But our family rule is that you can’t do Internet searches without an adult.”
In their chastened eyes, I could see the question they were too afraid to ask: Why?
They deserved an answer, and we told them the truth.
“The Internet has pictures that are upsetting, scary and confusing for young kids. And worse, many of the pictures are harmful to girls.”
Both kids’ eyes grew wide. I turned to my daughter and told her that a search on the Internet might bring up images of only one type of body. “If your body doesn’t look like the bodies you see — if it’s smaller or bigger or a different shape — then you may start to feel shame about how your body looks.” While this was our first conversation about Internet safety, we’ve had many conversations about body image. She knows how seriously I take this issue.
My husband assured them that when they are older, they can make their own decisions about what kind of pictures to view. “But for now, we believe you are too young to look at pictures of naked people on the computer, and we are going to fix the computer so you won’t be able to see them.”
The following morning, I dove into the research, which suggested that in addition to enabling restrictions on all our devices, parents should also block YouTube. While most of the articles I found concerned teens and technology, Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” confirms that parents “can talk about potential issues as early as third grade, because even the youngest children can pretty easily find things like pornography online.”
My impulse was to keep this incident a secret because of the shame I felt, both about the kids’ search and my lapse that enabled it. But as I became willing to talk to other parents of school-age kids, I learned I am not alone. There were plenty of parents who had similar stories with whom I could commiserate, and others were grateful for the warning. My secrecy would have kept me isolated and wouldn’t have helped anyone.
Yes, I’m sad we’ve crossed into the unfamiliar world of talking to kids about Internet pornography, but this new land is filled with people just like us, and the more conversations we have about keeping our kids’ relationship to technology healthy, the better off we all are.
Christie Tate is a lawyer and writer who lives in Chicago with her husband and two children. She’s on Twitter @ChristieOTate.