school

"Primary school kids are sexting now but disciplining them won't stop anything."

I was sitting in my car while my son and his friends were at soccer training when I received a text from a parent friend asking me if I was at the grounds and could she possibly talk to me for few minutes. I told her I was in the car and would meet her. We walked towards each other, both carrying our phones, me thinking she was probably just going to ask if I could take her son to the game that weekend.

“I caught *Michael watching pornography a few days ago so I’ve taken his phone off him. I just wanted you to know in case your son is watching it as well.” She seems mortified, embarrassed, hesitant to inform me of what our boys had been getting up to.

My first instinct was to lie, feign surprise and then pledge to hand out the same harsh punishment she had to her son. In truth I became aware my son had been exposed to sexual explicit material a year-and-a-half earlier and had been attempting to deal with it ever since.

'These days we have no choice but to hold our children's hands through our technology-saturated society'. Image: Modern Family, Network Ten

I fessed up, explained I'd been dealing with it for a while and I thanked her for letting me know. I already knew her son had been accessing material. In fact I knew all of my son's friends who had been accessing it because my son had told me during one of our many conversations about technology and sexually explicit material.

This week Louise Roberts wrote that parents are to blame for children who sext because they are too soft on them. In RendezView in The Daily Telegraph she explained her belief that tough parenting is the only way to tackle our children's sexting culture:

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The sexting trend, and it had to come to this given an increasing laissez-faire attitude to parenting, has rewound from teens and seeped into the playgrounds of primary schools.

She goes as far as to blame parents for the sexting epidemic "engulfing our kids":

Look in the mirror. Parents are to blame for a corrosive sexting epidemic engulfing our kids. Instead of saying no, we are handing them the mobile weapons to self-destruct.

And worse still, we are not teaching them sufficiently that a naked breast shot at the age of 10 is an image that will haunt them forever.

Her solution is for parents to become "gatekeepers" and "protectors" when it comes to how our children use technology and on this we completely agree. Where we disagree is the method we choose to become our children's gatekeepers and protectors.

Roberts says the only way to do this is to, "step up and be the protector not the whiner."

Australian children are accessing pornographic material as young as 10, according to Children Family Community Australia. "Research indicates that children and young people are accessing pornography at increasing rates, with boys aged 14-17 years being the most frequent underage consumers of pornographic material," they write.

Then there are disturbing images of children adopting provocative poses in photos, pursing their lips, taking selfies, mimicking the images they see celebrities on social media. The Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) reported some children are sending photos of themselves in underwear, as well as other more "explicit" photos.

Mum finds daughter's bedroom on live streaming app. Article continues after this video.

CASA spokeswoman Carolyn Worth told RendezView, “We never would have thought that kids this age would take pictures of themselves nude or in intimate positions. We have to keep playing catch-up.”

The early over-sexualisation of our children courtesy of technology is a serious issue that parents are left scrambling to address, having quickly realised that parental controls, ratings systems and mirroring our children's devices only go so far when it comes to protecting them.

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Psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg reflects the view of most mental health experts when he warns that children are not mature enough to manage their digital footprint. He says warnings, "seem to be falling on deaf ears," he told RendezView.

Roberts says parents are too focused on being their children's "best friend" rather than the "rule enforcer" and claims parents are afraid to use the word "no". She feels it is unfair that school principals, teachers and police are left to deal with these matters because, "some parents are incompetent and frankly too lazy or ignorant" to manage the problem themselves.

This is not the case at all.

The fact is that our children use technology every single day. If we aren't the ones giving them devices they are using them at school, at the library or at friend's and relative's houses.

If we take a hard line and simply snatch our children's devices away from them every time they do something we don't approve of, we are robbing ourselves of an opportunity to begin an ongoing conversation about what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate when it comes to technology and how it is used.

To take our children's devices and ban them from use does them an incredible disservice, particularly when every single educational opportunity and every single job opportunity requires a high level of ability when it comes to technology in all of it's forms.

By holding their hands through the process, we aren't being soft. We are being smart. We are building trust. We are parenting in a way that is realistic for our technology-saturated society. To take our children's devices away from them fails to teach them proper use. It's tantamount to sticking our fingers in our ears and singing or burying our heads in the sand.

Jo Abi has three children, Philip, 12, Giovanni, 8 (left) and Caterina, 7 (right). Image: Provided
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My son knows he can talk to me about anything he does or discovers online. He knows I won't yell or get mad. He knows I will take the opportunity to discuss it with him and as a result he will discuss it with me at any stage when something occurs to him, or when he thinks of a question he wants to ask.

If our children don't feel they can come to us to discuss their habits and compulsions and mistakes, we are leaving them to try and figure it out for themselves, to feel around blindly in the dark and even worse, to feel ashamed of themselves, as though their choices are a consequence of their bad character, not a consequence of the world in which we live.

Children are victims in all of this and yes it is their parent's job to help them through it, but it is also the job of principals, teachers and the police. It's on all of us to manage it and deal with it together, without blame, without finger-pointing and without leaving our children feeling ashamed of what they are participating in and what they are being exposed to.

My hope is that by opening up to my son, through the police presentations about social media that are organised at his school, by the principal and teachers enforcing a "no phones policy" during school hours we are all managing this serious problem together.

That's why sometimes with my children I am the enforcer. That's why sometimes with my children I'm more freerange. That's why when it comes to their homework I border on Tiger Mum.

And that's why when it comes to the early sexualisation of my children thanks to technology, I am their best friend who they can talk to about anything and everything with no blame and no judgement, choosing instead to focus on educating them, explaining it to them and coming up with strategies and solutions together.

*Not his real name

If you feel you need additional guidance to talk to your children about issues arising from technology use contact the Kid's Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Want more parenting advice? Listen to the latest episode of This Glorious Mess