Adolescent Curiosity and Adult Internet Exposures

Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Comparable to the Industrial Revolution in generating major social change, the Internet Revolution has been no less impactful, particularly on adolescent curiosity: “With my computer, I can find out about anything I want to know.”

Maybe in the parent’s youth, when a young person asked an unwelcome question about an adult experience, she or he might have been told, “Wait until you’re more grown-up and then we’ll talk about it.” Gone are those days. Goodbye delay. Now youth has immediate, 24-hour access to the Internet to satisfy curiosity’s call. A “wild west” of information and misinformation, is only a quick click away.

Restricting Internet Access

Sometimes parents will decide to limit this exposure by monitoring or restricting Internet activity, disabling or forbidding travel on home devices where they don’t want the young teenager to go. They do this to protect their daughter or son from what they consider dangerous exposures to all kinds of harmful influences, be they sites that deal with violence, hate, sex, drugging, gambling, dating, law breaking, cults, conspiracy, or whatever else parents fear: “We don’t want this kind of information coming into our home.”

The Internet has immeasurably enlarged the playing field of growing up, challenging traditional parental oversight in the process. Around middle school is when more worldly curiosity often takes wings; the Internet is where much discovery occurs. Certainly, parents can feel free to put any restrictions on Internet travel and activity that are consistent with their principles and beliefs. However, at most, they only have a measure of local influence since they cannot control their teenager’s access and activity on the computer devices of friends or on devices they can access elsewhere.

Better Than Restriction

What’s a parent to do? Parents must accept the reality of today’s information availability and immediacy. They should treat any adolescent online searching or experience that they find worrisome as an opportunity for discussion and providing education. Parents should help evaluate whatever the young person is being electronically told, and be open to follow wherever the young person’s curiosity leads. When an adolescent gains earlier Internet access than parents might wish, talking about how to weigh this online exposure and information is important to do.

Their advice to their adolescent could sound like this: “While it’s tempting to believe content and follow advice that is given on the Internet, it’s best to evaluate it first. So, let’s talk about what you’ve been told and what there is to watch out for, because every Internet site is posted with an agenda, to influence your thinking or your action. Therefore, always ask yourself: ‘Why would anyone want to post this information, what am I being asked to believe, what response is wanted from me, and why?’”

Internet Exposures

If an adult Internet exposure occurs that reveals their young adolescent is watching what parents disapprove of or that is forbidden, such as pornography, on her or his computer, parents need to first assess their own emotional response. If they feel shocked, horrified, disgusted, or furious, and are inclined to act that way, they need to emotionally sober themselves up enough to talk about the experience reasonably and effectively. Expressing fright, criticism, disappointment, or anger reduces the likelihood that helpful communication will occur.

A simple rule about confronting a forbidden or unwanted Internet exposure is this: calming before communication. Take a break. Take a deep breath. Take yourself to a quiet place. Maybe talk first to a friend. Take a moment to appreciate what you love about your child. Take time to get ready to listen, learn, and talk.

Let worst fears rule and you are liable to let expressing your upset detract from your child’s education: “I made my feeling offended the focus of our communication. Instead of talking out and finding out what was experienced and learned, I totally shut him down.”

Pornographic Exposure

Young viewers need adult help to evaluate their Internet experience—to see it for what it is, for what it isn’t, and for what it is really intended. For example, consider a pornographic Internet exposure, which is increasingly common by the middle-school age. As suggested, I believe it’s best to treat an unwanted or disapproved Internet exposure as a talking point to open up discussion, and not a time to criticize or punish them, which will only close communication down.

So, after emotionally collecting yourself, simply declare: “In general, I want us to be able to share about our days in two ways—about our offline day and about our online day as well. Existing in two worlds of experience has made life more complicated for both of us this way, so there is much more to keep up with now. Since you have acted old enough to want to watch this kind of Internet offering, I would like you also to act old enough to be willing to discuss it with me. I’m not out to change your mind, only to offer my perspective for you to consider.”

In this case, what might such a statement of perspective include? First, parents can state how sexual curiosity is normal, just as sexual thoughts and feelings are normal. What pornography does show is naked people having sex, so, to that degree, it is visually informative.

Then parents can explain how pornography is designed to work, like how it is meant for sexual entertainment, not sexual instruction—to compel interest, not to express accuracy. It is for arousal, not education. It pretends and distorts more than it accurately informs. It portrays sex as for sensual pleasure, not for creating emotional closeness. It makes any kind of sexual treatment look acceptable and ignores abuse. It can make having unprotected sex seem OK. It treats people more like sex objects than human beings. It makes human relationships mostly about sex and little else. It can portray exploitive and harmful sex as normal and consensual. What may look OK may not feel OK. In this sense, pornography is for fantasy, not reality. At worst, pornography featuring children and underage players is coercive, exploitive, and destructive: “These vulnerable young people are often being deeply hurt.”

The Parenting Challenge

Whenever you find an unwanted Internet exposure has occurred in your adolescent’s life, this is a time to encourage communication, not express criticism or give punitive correction. Today, parents need to keep adolescent Internet life, with all its complexities, open for discussion all the time, and to share their growing online experience as well, for good and ill. More than that, there is this:

For adolescents drawn to more worldly experience, online life is irresistible. The Internet, virtual reality, social networking, and computer gaming have unleashed an evolutionary burst of human creativity, breaking historical bounds. Honorably enthralled, now enthusiastic young people often lead the exciting way to the cutting edge of change. To a degree lagging behind, parents can sometimes feel mixed—wanting their teenager to keep up with emerging possibilities while also worrying about risks of harm. What to do?

In advanced cases, what can work best is treating one’s adventurous adolescent as an instructor: “You are learning so much that I don’t know. Could you sometimes take me along? Could you show me what I can’t appreciate and don’t understand?”

Becoming a teenage teacher of ignorant parents can be an esteem-filing role to fill, while becoming one’s adolescent’s student can help keep parents adequately informed.

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