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80% of Parents Think Their Kids are Growing Up too Fast: Is Technology to Blame?



Alysse ElHage - published on 11/20/14

Or could it be something even closer to home?

A recent survey in the United Kingdom found that 80 percent of parents believe their kids are growing up too fast. Eight out of ten parents blamed peer pressure, the Internet and social networking sites. These same parents said they allow their 10-year-olds to own cell phones, have TVs in their bedrooms, have their own iPads, and to search the Internet without supervision by age 12.

The findings are similar to a 2013 Microsoft survey that found that eight years of age is the average at which most parents allow unsupervised Internet use. Most alarming, among parents of children under age seven – 29 percent allow their kids to use cell phones unsupervised, and 40 percent allow their kids to use a computer unsupervised.

Is the problem really with technology or could it be, say, a problem with parenting?

The statistics on kids’ media use are disturbing but not surprising. Many of my daughter’s peers have iPads and/or video gaming consoles, their own televisions, and are way more tech-savvy than most adults. I also know plenty of 11-year-olds whose parents get them a Facebook account, buy them cell phones with texting capabilities, and allow unsupervised online gaming or surfing.

What is surprising is that parents who buy their aged 10 and under kids the latest technological gadgets and allow unsupervised screen time are blaming the Internet or the kids’ peers for causing their children to grow up too fast, while ignoring the obvious factor of the lack of protective parenting.

As the parent of a nine year-old girl and a three year-old boy, my “mommy radar” is always on high alert for anything remotely sexual from which to shield my children. Wherever I turn, it seems the world is trying to rob my daughter and son of their natural childhood innocence, to push them into adolescence too soon, and to desensitize and sexualize them. There are the TV commercials advertising a sexually violent crime drama that seem always to air during college football games, the nearly-naked women sprawled on the covers of magazines at the grocery checkout counter, and even the supposedly harmless Disney Channel “tween” dramas that market teenage “values.” Then, there is the Internet – where at the accidental click of a mouse, or the innocent scroll of someone’s open Facebook page, my child can be instantly exposed to the most vile aspects of our world, including obscenity, graphic violence and pornography.

These constant threats have made me an unabashed “helicopter parent” in the fullest sense of the term, especially when it comes to protecting my children from inappropriate media content. It’s why my husband and I take what many of our friends and family consider “extreme” precautions to shield our children from the overly sexualized culture – including a zero tolerance policy for commercials, no nightly news or channel surfing while the kids are awake, no cable, no TVs in bedrooms, and absolutely no unsupervised online time, even for homework.

What’s odd about permissive parenting when it comes to the media and Internet is that there’s no lack of protective parenting in the outside world, where the very real fear of child predators causes most parents, including myself, to exercise caution about outdoor play. Most of us won’t allow our kids to walk to school alone (if we can help it), ride their bikes to the library, or even play outside in the front yard without some kind of adult supervision. A recent study of middle class homes in the L.A. area found that 90 percent of children in the study spend their leisure time playing video games, watching TV, and using computers.

So while most parents are rightly concerned about the dangerous world outside our front door, we bring our children inside for “screen time” and inadvertently leave them vulnerable to being seduced by Hollywood values or being victimized by online sexual predators.

I want to suggest three reasons parents should exercise caution in their children’s media consumption/screen time.

  1. We live in a culture that promotes sexual freedom over sexual restraint, and markets this culture to our children in every possible medium. A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that, “there is no question that girls (and boys) grow up in a cultural milieu saturated with sexualizing messages.” The report found that “women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person).” According to the APA, the "sexualizing" culture negatively influences a girl’s sexual development and can lead to a negative body image, depression, and lower self-esteem. At the same time, it affects how both boys and girls view dating, and can lead to increased rates of sexual abuse and harassment of women.
The online world is an adult world with adult dangers that pose a significant threat to our children’s innocence.It is not a place for children to be left alone and unsupervised. According to
NetSmartz, an organization created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), online dangers for kids include: exposure to “inappropriate material,” such as sexually explicit or violent images, sexual predators, theft of personal information, cyberbullying and harassment.” Additionally, according to
a 2007 NCMEC report:

  1. About one in seven youth ages 10 to 17 have been sexually solicited online
  2. 34 percent have encountered unwanted pornography, most while surfing the web
  3. Over 75 percent of Internet crimes involving sexual solicitations of children and exposure to unwanted pornography is not reported to police or parents.
  1. Allowing unrestricted media access opens the door for the pornified culture to influence and shape our children’s values. As parents, we want to be the primary value shapers for our children, but that is harder to do if we are competing against the seductive voices of a culture intent on sexualizing them. The good news is that we do have some level of control over what values we willingly allow to influence our children. This involves saying no to certain things, such as no cell phones or other gadgets before a certain age, no screens of any kind (including cell phones) in the bedroom, and no movies, TV shows, video games, or music that teach values contrary to our own. But it also means saying yes to other things, such as moving the computer to the family room where there is less chance of privacy; installing filtering software on all our online devices; and importantly, embracing and promoting positive forms of entertainment in place of the bad, especially movies, television, music and games that promote the values and virtues we want our children to emulate.

To be honest, I despise having to be on constant alert for inappropriate advertisements during what should be a family-friendly football game, or having to say “no” when my daughter asks if she can watch the latest Disney Channel tween flick that all her friends are watching, or explaining why she can’t “play” on my cell phone, even though her friends “do it all the time.”

Realistically, I know that despite my best efforts, my children will at some point be exposed to sexually explicit material—most likely when I am not around. They will be influenced by the values of their peers who may not be as sheltered. I certainly need to prepare them and myself for that possibility. But that does not mean I have to accept defeat in the daily battle to preserve their innocence. I have a responsibility to do what I can to help them stay children for as long as possible. That probably means my kids will be less tech-savvy than their peers, they won’t recognize the name “Hannah Montana” and they may not have seen the latest “G” rated movie. But if that is the price of preserving their innocence a little longer, then that is OK with me.

Alysse ElHage is a freelance writer and associate director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. 

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