"Big Four" Highlights


‘Seeing Stones’

New, alarming trends in youth-produced online content

By Jason Godin

Was our modern communications foreshadowed by a famous novel? Think of the striking similarities between palantíri – the smooth, stone spheres used to communicate across the distances of fictional Middle-earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece trilogy, Lord of the Rings – and today’s laptop computers connected to the internet. Both are small, portable objects able to transmit crystal-clear images. They’re also both capable of easily presenting what their users want to see, with more determined, innovative users able to create entirely new images for other viewers to display and enjoy. But as both the books and their award-winning movie adaptations warn, anguish awaits those who seek to use the powers of the palantíri for pleasure or careless curiosity.

Such warnings often go unheeded, of course, and today we see the real-life consequences when it comes to youth and their interactions with sexually explicit content online. According to findings released in a March 2015 report by the Internet Watch Foundation and Microsoft, 85.9% of sexual content depicting children aged 15 or younger was created by youth “using a webcam in a home environment, most commonly a bedroom or bathroom.” Additionally, the report revealed how the youth depicted “took no steps to conceal their identity or location, even in many cases using their real names” and knowingly created the content for public website use, where the original creator lost control of its use and distribution (p. 18).

The report challenges traditional understandings of youth-produced sexual content. For Amanda Smith, communications director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation based in Washington, D.C., it takes “sexting [exchange of sexually explicit text messages, including photographs, via cell phone] one step further.” Equally alarming, she added, are some of the other long-term effects on individuals not included in the report. “The report does not even begin to hit the point that kids are developing life-long dependences to this material,” Smith added, or “the hurdles that [it] creates for their progression in school, the workplace, and socially.”

Larger screens and higher processing speeds may help explain the greater use of laptops to produce the content, according to the report. But would slower connections and download time inhibit use?

“Unfortunately, those who are addicted to viewing/producing porn will wait,” observed Dr. Peter C. Kleponis of The Institute of Marital Healing in Conshohocken, Pa., and author of Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography (Emmaus Road). “Teens have a sense of invincibility. Although they might be aware of the dangers of the internet, most believe that nothing bad will happen if they participate in creating child porn. They see it as a fun game among their peers.”

So what can parents do to combat such an alarming trend? For one, create a place where your children feel comfortable getting their information and understanding about sexuality and its consequences – both the in-person and online kinds – from you, not the internet. Also don’t be afraid to discuss the issue regularly as a family. Smith warned how parents must “recognize that even their most successful, well-behaved children are at risk,” and how the report reminds them they must “talk with their children about basic internet safety, no matter what type of content they are posting.”

Software is also available to help monitor home internet usage. Kleponis suggested Covenant Eyes, an affordable internet accountability and filtering service. As a no-cost step in the right direction, he emphasized that no one in the family should be able to isolate themselves when using the internet, parents included. Kleponis also proposes that parents place time limits on device usage, collecting all devices at 9 p.m., turning them off and locking them away.

The latest report proves that parents must monitor their children’s media use with vigilance, especially when images are involved. It reveals that we must no longer shy away from sharing with our children how they need to avoid sending any pictures of themselves to others. It also shows how real threats to the safety and security of our children demand that we monitor our modern “seeing stones.”

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.