Thirteen years ago, when Merlyn Horton first began talking to people about Internet safety, the biggest concern was predators that were going to contact your kids online and put them in danger.
But as the world wide web—and the way we and our children access the Internet—has changed over the course of more than a decade, so too have the dangers associated with it.
“In 2000 and 2001 everyone was talking about predators online that were going to lure your kids out of your home,” said Horton. “We thought the bad man was out there. Here we are 15 to 20 years later and we’re understanding the biggest risk to ourselves online is ourselves. It’s in the conversations we engage in, it’s the exposure we give ourselves, the things we tell each other, who we talk to and what we post.”
Being our own worst enemy isn’t something new but technology has gotten to a point where everyone is packing a smart phone around and is constantly engaged with it. Sit in any waiting room and you’ll find a roomful of people staring at a device as opposed to engaging with people right beside them. And the way parents are raising their kids has changed as well. Studies are showing many children get their first experience with a mobile device while still in diapers, said Horton.
“Screen time is taking the place of day-dreaming, of learning to self soothe, of learning how to talk to people,” she said. “When I was a kid there was a lot of empty time when you were actually doing a lot of intellectual processing. Now with children, especially when you look at elementary and high school students, there is a device close by all the time that can provide distraction. Kids might not know how to talk to people so they look at their device.”
As part of Interior Savings Unplug and Play Week, Horton will be in Kelowna on Wednesday night to present a free two-hour discussion called Parenting in a Digital Age. Trained as a journalist and employed for several decades as a youth outreach worker, Horton is the founder and CEO of Safe Online Outreach Society (safeonlineoutreach.com) where she first began her pioneering work studying technology and online sexual exploitation. Since 2001, she has spoken at multiple industry conferences on topics including cyber abuse, sexual exploitation online, children and media, social media, technology and victims of domestic violence.
According to Horton, today’s parents are dealing with much more than parents did in past generations and a lot of it has to do with online pornography. She noted rule 34 of the Internet which states “If it exists, there is porn of it.” According to the web site sexualsanity.com, as much as 30 per cent of Internet traffic is pornography related and Horton says the average age a child will first view online pornography is just 11-years-old.
“When kids are starting to view pornography at the age of 11, we can’t wait to talk to them about it,” she said. “This is a natural part of development. Sexual development hasn’t changed but the whole issue now is when kids go online to look at naked bodies they find pornography beyond our wildest dreams. Online porn is a significantly different animal than print-based and it’s setting unreal expectations of how to be with each other when they do become sexually active.”
Horton will touch on numerous points for discussion including video game ratings and will also provide tools for parents to help kids deal with the online world. She said despite the challenges, the Internet can also be a great learning tool and can help parents talk to their kids about topics that are very difficult.
“I need parents to come out and let me tell them what I think about the effects of viewing online sexual material, about communicating online and hopefully arm them with the skills so they can go home and talk to their families,” she said. “It’s about being a good role model and about having tech-free spaces in their homes and some of the problems with having technology in bedrooms. I love technology and I believe there is tremendous amount of positive resources online. But we have to think about it and putting an iPhone in a Grade 4s hands might just be overkill.”
Parenting in a Digital Age with Meryln Horton takes place Wednesday January 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Rotary Centre for the Arts in Kelowna.