My 11 year old son recently told me he had watched something horrible online. Something sexual where the young women involved where clearly coerced into the situation, something that was purposely brutal and disgusting – not just to an un-initiated, gentle, academic , 11 year old, prone to anxiety (who has recently moved from a primary school with a total of 48 pupils to a secondary school of 1,500), but actually – as it turns out – to anyone with a shred of humanity. The man who made it is now locked up. Something that was available to watch in an instant, at the swipe of a smartphone button, because that’s the way our beautiful interconnected world works now. I’ll talk about safety settings and 11 year olds having phones later… and porn in a wider context.
He watched it because one of his two new friends told him to watch it – his friend told him it was ‘funny’. He is finding it hard to make friends at the new school and wanted to fit in. He didn’t know what he was going to see.
My son became sullen and withdrawn, easily upset and quick to anger. I knew something was wrong – and gently asked on several occasions if he was ok. He said, “Yes”. Clearly he wasn’t. I guessed it was something he may have to work through without talking to me – and gave him space.
So we went for a family walk and I asked him again in a roundabout way. This often works with the other males in my family! We talked about school, about how things have changed so much, about how him and his ‘bestest buddy’ at primary school had completely grown apart. My son said, “It’s no great surprise, but it’s still sad”. He recognizes they were only so close because they were, literally, the only two boys in their tiny year at primary school… I hoped this bond would see them through the pressures of secondary school, but there was no chance once the peer pressure kicked in. He misses him.
Then that night, after the walk, as I was saying goodnight to him and his little brother, he asked to talk to me. We went down into my bedroom and he eventually told me everything. He told me he’d watched the short video horrified, but unable to stop (I said I knew exactly what he meant). He hadn’t been able to tell me as he thought I’d be angry with him. He told me how he could never ‘unsee it’, and, very significantly, he talked about how he felt his childhood was effectively finished. He experienced an instant and brutal loss of innocence – and whilst there is much to be salvaged, there is a lot of work to do.
So I’m left cuddling my son, strung between childhood and adolescence – who’s telling me how much he’d like to go backwards, back to where his slumbering eight year old brother is dreaming about Skylanders. He tells me that everything is moving way too fast. And we talk about this. We talk about the bit where he said ‘you can’t unsee stuff’, and we look at strategies to deal with the stuff you now know – the stuff that has been forced into your head. We talk about how you can’t go backwards (and how so many of wish we could), and we talk about what’s good and important about moving forwards, day by day, decision by decision. We talk about how my son needs to grow older so that the world can have a great man in their midst – and that can mean anything, from finding the cure to cancer to disappearing into the Australian Bush with a box set of Percy Jackson and communing with the lizards – as long as he is happy. We talk about how it would be great to just be able to make friends really easily, but in truth, most of us are lucky to have one or two really close friends and, if they are true friends, they will back off if there are things that make you feel uncomfortable and actually, it might help them admit that some things make them uncomfortable too.
We talk about the porn industry and how it so often portrays women as passive beings. We talk about how the women in the video he saw are real people being forced into a very unpleasant situation – perhaps mums and sisters, certainly daughters – and we talk about how very far from “funny” this video and so many other videos that are doing the rounds really are. We also talk about how sometimes women choose to go into the sex industry – that when the work is on their terms and they are in control, then that’s ok. We talk about why people might access porn and that looking at it and being curious is completely natural and we talk about the difference between what he watched and something that the majority of people might find titillating. This is in simplified terms.
I know my son, and it was important for him to get some facts and context from me, and I gave that as best as I could. We are curious beings, that’s what makes progress possible and unstoppable. We push and push – sometimes that results in progress that we understand and celebrate and sometimes it results in delving into the darker side of humanity. Darker can be ok. Darkest needs experience to deal with and process.
So, looking through a naïve 11 year old boy’s eyes… he sees that there are certainly gradations of porn. There is some that is – whilst still offering a pretty unrealistic view of sex between two consenting adults – bearable and allows you to retain your basic belief that the world is essentially ok (he tells me his old best mate showed him some pictures of boobs a few months ago… he gets that). Then there is the degrading, shockingly violent porn that showed him a very dark underbelly to his world indeed (hitherto populated by Minecraft, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) and faced with this hideous new information – he simply doesn’t know what to do with it. These are adults. How is he meant to feel?
After watching the video, he immediately changed his own settings on his own phone – he inherited it second hand from me and I had left the settings on Moderate. He changed them to Strict. And here’s the thing about 11 year olds and phones – he was the last in his year to get a phone. I held out, not because I was particularly worried about him having access to vile porn (we’d had the conversation about staying safe online, he’d had his internet safety day at school… ), but because I question why an 11 year old needs a phone other than to ‘fit in’. But I caved in a month ago because I didn’t want our son to have to field anymore of that crap that kids give each other ‘Why haven’t you got a phone, you loser?’… I caved to his peer pressure basically. I want him, for his sake, to fit in where he can, just to take the pressure off whilst he works out who he is. Another blog right there…
So why am I telling you this? What do I think might happen?
I work with 150 kids every week. I develop creative skills with them, I nurture and develop their confidence and communication skills, I persuade some to speak louder and help some to speak more clearly. I show them by example that, in my opinion, a sense of humour and relentless curiosity is all the intelligence you need. I encourage them to be open, creative and turn their hopes, worries and fantasies into theatre. (I’m currently writing a play with 35 of them about how our world has been taken over by digital, non contact communication – we’re looking at the ups and downs of this… the majority of them wish Facebook would pull the plug… yet another blog in the making).
And yet, most probably whilst I was actually running one of my workshops/ sessions/ rehearsals, my own son is watching his world cave in and then dealing with it on his own for seven whole days. The anger, frustration and sadness that has overwhelmed me since last night tells me that it’s time I used my 25 years of experience to do something about this very modern phenomenon. I use the internet all the time. I am very active on social media, sometimes for work, sometimes for flippant nonsense. I have watched porn and I think anyone who says they haven’t is either lying or… or I don’t actually know what the other option is. I’m sure some of you will tell me. But then I was shocked as a kid by a copy of Mayfair snagged on a hawthorn bush that my neighbour and I took back to our den. But I recognize that this time the internet has come and bitten me RIGHT on the arse and I wasn’t ready.
I could go on and on, the fury, the feeling of powerlessness etc. and there will be a follow up piece to this, once I have collected my thoughts and finished developing a pilot idea for tackling this issue. It will in the context of dealing with the fact that this stuff is out there, that it will be passed around and that I can’t stop it – I’m no Mary Whitehouse – bejesus, anyone who knows me will back me up on that one – but like anything, it’s reacting to the world we live in today. Parents and teachers have a lot on their plates, kids have always found ways to discover the world on their own and that is essential, and it’s important that adults don’t interfere with that discovery and self-education to a degree. BUT it’s our ADULT world that is seeping into their childhood, more and more, at the touch of a button. And when the mark of cool and fitting in with your mates becomes watching a ‘funny’ video which is essentially brutal porn that will change your world – then I think we need to reassess.
Below is what my son says in his own words about the experience.
I am so disgusted and upset by the video. Whoever made that video must be so sick, and I am sure that 99% of the people who have watched it (and some who haven’t) agree with me.
It is horrible enough that I have watched it, but imagine if someone even younger than me was to see it, I cannot even begin to imagine the damage it would do.
I know that there are points I make that are subjective and debatable. So lets debate. I know that many people will point the finger and put this whole experience down to poor parenting. You’re welcome to that opinion. But I’d like to use this experience to develop tools for young people that might give them a vocabulary in the face of peer pressure – on both sides. I’d also like to give parents and teachers workable strategies to help safeguard the young people in their charge to a realistic degree. This isn’t really about ‘internet safety’ days although they are absolutely essential. It’s about having very open and frank discussions about the content that our generation has created and giving it a context for the younger generations who are consuming and replicating it.
I would be very interested to hear what other’s experience of this are.
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