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BFTP: One big room, redux

80 per cent of young people are looking at sexual images online on a regular basis. The average age to start viewing pornography was about 11 or 12 while sexting was considered almost routine for many 13-14 year olds. ... Research has found that 50 per cent of youngsters had taken part in some sort of webcam sexual experience.  Pornography online is warping children's minds, teachers warnThe Telegraph, March 17, 2013

As a grandfather with a soon to be 12-year-old grandson, I find these sorts of numbers disturbing. Despite having active, caring parents, Paul lives and participates in a brave new world - and at age 11, seems to already exhibit some adolescent behaviors and attitudes. But even in 2006, I wondered if trying to keep kids out of unsuitable Internet content (at least through blocking and filters) is a fool's errand: 

Sorry folks. Anyone who thinks he or she can control kids' access to online information or experiences through legislation or a filter is spitting in the wind. We are not facing a simple technical challenge. We are swimming against a cultural tide.

Neil Postman explains why in his book The Disappearance of Childhood (1982). It's been a while since I have read this book, but as I remember, Postman's arguments go something like this: Childhood is a social construct. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were simply treated as small adults. They dressed like adults; they worked like adults; they lived where adults lived; and they saw what adults saw. Adults and children before the second half of the 19th century all pretty much lived in one big room.

The rise in industrialization also gave rise to the concept of "childhood." Society started treating children differently than it did adults; separating them by dress, by activity, and especially in experience. We kept kids in their own rooms with very limited access to adult rooms -- for their own safety, of course.

Postman argued that with the ubiquity of mass media (pre-Internet days), society no longer has the ability to keep children away from adult venues, sights, and experiences. We've all been pushed back into one big room, as it were. Once again, kids see and experience what adults see and experience.

When I first started speaking about Internet filtering back in 1994, I'd ask workshop participants if they felt the following materials were appropriate for children to have access to:

  • "Sex After 35: Why It's Different, Why it Can be Better"
  • "Men & Sex: Their 7 Secret Wishes"
  • "How Our Sex Life Was Saved"
  • "Major New Sex Survey: What You Don't Know..."
  • "The Sexual Games of the American Male"
  • "He Wants What? Men's 6 Biggest Sexual Fantasies"
  • "The Sex Skill Men Adore (& How to Do It Well)"
  • "The Hugh Grant Syndrome: Why Guys Pay for Sex"
  • "Five Total Turn-Ons Men Can't Resist"

Everyone agreed that those were not materials suitable for children -- and that they should be denied access to them.

"Too late," I'd say. "Each of those are headlines were splashed on the front cover of popular magazines easily found near any supermarket checkout lane." And last I checked, those magazine headlines have not become less explicit.

This cultural shift that is removing the wall between the kids' and adults' rooms is unnerving to say the least. Our natural inclination as parents and educators (and even politicians, I suppose) is to shelter and protect. But responsible adults also recognize that it is in their children's best interest not to shelter, but to teach children how to protect themselves in the big, bad world. One Big Room

When the adult bookstore (or nut-case militia or lunatic-fringe religious group) is only a click or two away, when wireless access in homes puts the Internet into every child's bedroom, and when work-arounds, proxies, and VPNs make filters ineffectual, we can only teach and practice our adult values - and hope out children learn.

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Original post March 20, 2013

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