Once considered a luxury, internet access is now considered a necessity for many—including children.
Ninety-two percent of children have a digital footprint by the time they are two years old, according to a study by Business Wire. By 5 years old, 50 percent of children are regularly using a computer or tablet, according to the same study.
With so many children using the internet at a young age, it's not if but when they will encounter harmful material.
"I think it’s really important for parents to know that they will deal with this and it’s important to be prepared," says Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. "It doesn’t mean you have bad kids. It means you live in a fallen world."
While Hanks, founder and director of Wasatch Family Therapy, says there are many dangers for children on the internet today, there are three in particular that seem especially connected to each other:
According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, children who are regularly exposed to violence through TV, video games, the internet, movies, or text messages, are at a higher risk of violent behavior. The study found that viewing or reading about violent acts on a regular basis online has the same effect as seeing them in real life. This leads to an increased risk of violent behavior in children.
Viewing violent acts, even on electronic devices, can also "change your brain," de Azevedo Hanks says, and she's right.
When the Indiana University School of Medicine examined a group of young men after they played a violent video game for about a week, they found a difference in brain activity from before and after the week was up. There was decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, or thinking part of the brain responsible for self-control, and increased activity in the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain responsible for anger and impulsive behavior.
"I think we talk a lot, especially in our culture, about pornography but we don’t talk as much about violence, and that is a huge concern," de Azevedo Hanks says. "So we are really concerned about sexual images, but parents don’t seem to be as concerned about violence, and I think that’s a problem."
And she is not alone in thinking parents do not realize the impact of violent media. In a survey of 24,000 children conducted for the U.K. Council for Child Internet Safety, children were just as upset by violent acts on YouTube videos as they were by pornography or cyber bullying.
With the ability of violent acts to change a child's behavior and affect them emotionally, de Azevedo Hanks says it's important for parents to do all they can to prevent their children from viewing violent acts on any electronic device.
"Consistent exposure changes our brain, and you can’t get that out—you can’t un-see something," she says.
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According to an article by the American Psychological Association, about 40 percent of children ages 10 to 17 visit sexually explicit sites, whether intentionally or accidentally.
And one-third of those children was actively looking for pornography.
Little scientific research is available about the behavioral effects pornography has on children. But many scientific findings, including those found in a study by the Journal of Family Issues, show commonalities concerning the effects of pornography on young adults, including the following:
1. Callousness toward women
2. Twice as likely to think marriage would become obsolete and were accepting of infidelity in relationships
3. Viewed rape as not a serious crime
4. Decreased desire to have children
5. More likely to seek extreme and deviant forms of pornography
While the definition of pornography can be vague, it's important for parents to realize the different kinds of pornography a child could have access to online.
"We don’t talk about the combination of sexual material and violence, and that is the terrifying part as a parent—when violence and sexuality are consistently linked together," de Azevedo Hanks says. "That’s a different kind of image than a picture of a voluptuous woman in a small bikini. Those are totally different things and we don’t really make distinctions between types of pornography."
Violence and pornography together can be particularly destructive, she says, because it shows violence toward women as an acceptable practice.
In a study by Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Layden found 40 percent of the 100 women she interviewed at the center said their partner viewed pornography before the abuse.
While a parent's initial response to finding out their child is viewing pornography may be anger, de Azevedo Hanks says this could lead to the child "shutting down" rather than seeking additional help from parents.
"I think a really important thing to remember is to hold the relationship from day one so your child knows, 'You can come to me when you’re confused. When you’re sad. When you feel guilt, I’m here for you,'" she says. "So I think it’s really important, especially when kids are exposed to things online that they feel uncomfortable about, whether it’s bullying, whether it’s porn, whether it’s violence, or if it’s a combination of all it, they can always come to you and they will not be in trouble. You are here to help them."
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3. Skewed Sense of Reality
The distortion of reality doesn't begin online for some children and teens.
De Azevedo Hanks observed that even watching Disney shows with her children where the characters appear happier once they received something material, like a game, can be a misrepresentation of reality.
This kind of commercial distortion of reality, that you need a game to make you happy, is also found on the internet. But there are other, more subtle distortions children may find as they begin accessing social media and internet sites.
In a study by Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, college undergrads reported higher self-esteem after looking at their Facebook profile than after looking in a mirror.
"Unlike a mirror, which reminds us of who we really are and may have a negative effect on self-esteem if that image does not match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves," says Cornell communications professor Jeffrey Hancock, Ph.D., one of the study's co-authors.
As with adults, there is a concern that children careful craft pictures on social media sites like Instagram or Facebook to present a different reality that their peers will approve of.
According to a survey by Statista, about 40 percent of teens feel pressured to post pictures that only show themselves in a good light.
Despite knowing this, more than 20 percent said they felt worse about their own lives when they saw pictures of their friends on social media.
This opens up room for negative feelings about body image, something de Azevedo Hanks is also concerned about, and with good reason.
Findings from a study by Common Sense Media showed that children who are exposed to traditional media are more likely to develop negative body image. More than a third of children ages 13 to 17 reported feeling stressed out over how they looked in the pictures they posted and more than 25 percent reported feeling upset when people didn't "like" or share their photos enough.
This reliance on social media can also create a false sense of connection, de Azevedo Hanks says.
"It’s like a relationship substitute," she says. "We have those feelings—we have loneliness, sadness, anger, whatever—that propel us to engage in a relationship with people to feel better. Technology can easily be used as a way to avoid dealing with painful emotions. I think that it can be used as a way to numb depression and to reduce anxiety. That’s fine sometimes, but if that’s your only way to feel is to numb out or to distract yourself, that’s an emotional health problem that could get worse."
Combating Harmful Online Material
A study by CyberPsychology and Behavior estimates 90 percent of children in America 10 to 18 years old have access to the internet. With so many harmful, even dangerous things out on the web, de Azevedo Hanks shares a few ways to combat them.
Predetermined Age Limits
Some social media site like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram require users to be at least 13 years old to use their sites without parental permission.
De Azevedo Hanks says that it is important to set age limits within your family before allowing children to access social media sites. It's also important to communicate why you have age limits for when your children can access social media sites.
While this may be challenging, it could also be a good opportunity to communicate to your children the importance of staying safe on the internet.
De Azevedo Hanks says, "That’s a chance to say, ‘You know what, the rule is you need to be 13 minimum, but that’s Instagram’s rule, not our family rule. . .You can come across things on Instagram that are really inappropriate and that I don’t want you to see when you’re so young because it impacts your brain. My job is to protect you, so it’s not that I’m mean or I don’t want you to have friends.'"
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Setting parent controls on every device your children has access to is essential to their safety online.
"They (children) should not have unrestricted access," de Azevedo Hanks says. "I can’t stress that enough. Parents have no clue. I was talking to an acquaintance about that. She has a teenage son and an elementary-age son and they are home together during chunks of time while the parents are at work. We were talking about it and her computer, her iPad, the phones, everything is open. I was just said, 'Do you realize how dangerous that is for your kids?'"
Hanks suggests setting parental control on every device: computers, smartphones, Kindles, iPads, television sets, ect., to protect children from accessing harmful material.
It's also important for parents to have the passwords for their children's social media sites, email, smartphone, and computer.
De Azevedo Hanks says she uses software that requires a password before a new website can be accessed on her computer.
With apps like Hide App-Hide, which prevent parents from seeing what apps their children have downloaded on their phones, it can be difficult to monitor online activity on phones.
De Azevedo Hanks says she pre-sets her children's phones to require a password only she knows to download new apps. That way, she monitors what apps are on the phones her children use.
She also follows children online through social media. Nothing online is confidential, de Azevedo Hanks says, so it is natural that parents should have the same information about their children that anyone else could access.
Also having software that allows parents to view browsing history on the computer and what words were typed is helpful.
Having limits on where and when smartphones can be used is also important. De Azevedo Hanks says her family has a rule that smartphones are not allowed in bedrooms until her children are 18, to keep them from texting throughout the night or accessing inappropriate online material.
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Keep an Open Dialog
De Azevedo Hanks says to talk to your children when they are young about what's appropriate behavior and what's not when it comes to media consumption. This can be as simple as watching cartoons with toddlers and pointing out what's appropriate behavior.
"You can kind of start having those conversations and you can help your child develop critical thinking about what they’re seeing and engaging with through digital media," she says.
She also says parents cannot always protect their children from all the harmful material they wish they could. By opening up a dialog about why restrictions to internet need to be in place, parents can explain why it's important to place restrictions on the internet.
"Open up a dialog by being supportive by explaining why," de Azevedo Hanks says. "[Explain] why there is no privacy when it comes to technology. It’s not just that you're mean or you don’t trust them. There are people in the world that are up to some really horrible things, and it’s my job to protect them. So explain why."
Image from Getty Images
For more from Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, read The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.