The other day while my two boys were at school, I forced myself to conduct a pretty creepy experiment. First, I went online and checked out a few of the estimated 4.2 million pornographic sites on the Internet. Next, I visited one of those sex chat rooms that randomly pair you with someone else for a webcam-based conversation and witnessed the extreme things people are doing in full view of total strangers. Then I imagined being a kid—and how I would've reacted if this had been the first graphic sexual imagery I'd ever seen.
After I completed this challenge, my blood pressure was in the stratosphere, and I was more than a little freaked out. What's shocking is how insanely easy it is for anyone—including kids—to enter this world without registering or paying for a thing. But cyberporn is a fact of life for kids today: Fifty-three percent of boys and 28 percent of girls between the ages of 12 and 15 deliberately seek out sexually explicit material, much of it online, according to a recent survey. That's not to mention the leagues of minors who are exposed unintentionally each year, whether through sexting or clicking on links in spam or logging onto sites with deliberately misleading domain names. "The idea of kids looking at racy images is nothing new," says Jane D. Brown, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "What's different now is that the Internet, cell phones and digital cameras have made pornography, much of it hard-core and violent, more accessible to younger people than ever before."
Given this disturbing reality, it's the responsibility of all parents to protect their kids not only by supervising their activities online, but also by teaching them what a healthy, loving relationship actually is. "Living in such a wired, communication-rich environment may be what finally forces people to talk to their kids about cyberporn and so many other difficult but important issues," says Ralph DiClemente, Ph.D., professor of public health at Emory University in Atlanta. "If you think about it, there's a silver lining here."