I was a tween before the word tween was invented, back in the olden days before twerking and junior misses’ g-strings. My parents owned a thick dictionary with a red linen cover, and it contained all the language. When they weren’t watching, I pored over it, looking up various body parts and four-letter words. My sister and I couldn’t get enough of reading the definition of fart (“a flatus expelled through the anus,” in case you were wondering). We’d laugh sometimes until the point of producing exactly that. Reading words like anus with mine own eyes felt subversive, which at that age meant f-u-n.
Back then, cable TV wasn’t all that sophisticated. Even if you didn’t pay for premium channels, you could still sorta kinda watch them by crooking your head the right way and doing this magic-eye thing of hyperfocusing. I assume this is how pretty much everyone in my generation got their first glimpses at porn. The reception on That Channel—I’m not sure we even knew the word porn then—wasn’t snowy, and it didn’t make white noise. It was more like a black-and-white film you had to watch through moving water. The picture was still there, though fuzzy. You could make out some of the shapes. But it undulated, and your brain had scant time to piece together images before they shifted. Sometimes the top of the screen showed up at the bottom, and vice-versa. If you were determined enough, you could occasionally catch a glimpse of some forbidden body part. And you could definitely hear the moaning.
I’m not sure, but I think That Channel and the red dictionary were the sum of all the dirty stuff my parents had to protect my sister and me from within our own home. And as you can gather, they failed miserably—as all of my friends’ parents did. It is, of course, natural for kids to be curious about these things. Unfortunately, today there is so much more than one fuzzy channel and an unabridged dictionary to fend off. So, I have low tolerance for people who think it’s easy to preserve children’s innocence, if only we lazy parents would try. As one would expect, pretty much 100 percent of people touting this view aren’t presently raising small children. And pretty much 100 percent of them are wrong. Folks, shielding kids from NSFW material is like trying to keep all your hair in a ponytail during a typhoon.
I try very hard to protect my kids from stumbling into the dark parts of the adult world. Very hard. But I feel outgunned. Even networks like ABC Family—talk about a misnomer—advertise provocative programming at times when little eyes and ears are obviously in the audience. Don’t even get me started on Charter’s On Demand. Nearly every time I’ve gone to that menu, there’s a zombie, shooting, exorcism, steamy sex scene, or other R-rated thing happening in the picture-in-picture box that I can’t for the love of Mike hide fast enough while we quick try to choose a kids’ movie. I stopped using On Demand for that reason, but guess what? My parents still use it. And since they raised children during a time of red-linen dictionaries and That Channel, they don’t have the 24/7 media-vigilance mentality it takes for child-rearing in these times.
I keep my radio tuned to XM Kids. If I don’t—and I know this from experience—when we start up the car, the first thing we’ll hear is some song about sticking this stuff in her stuff while he does that stuff to your stuff, or some horrible news story about death, rape, or destruction.
I can’t even let the kids stand near me when I’m looking up things on the Internet. Sure, I turn on Safe Search and lock it. No, it doesn’t stay locked, because you know, sometimes a grown lady’s got to look up things that have the word vagina in them. If I forget to re-do the settings, or if I log out and log back into Google, all bets are off. Yes, I’ve tried apps and software designed to keep the ‘net and iPad G-rated when in use by the kids. Not a one of them have ben foolproof. Close but not perfect.
My son heard me using Google Voice on the iPad recently. We had fun looking up the solar system and cheetahs. But yesterday as he was playing a game app, I heard his little voice say, “Okay, Google,” and I reflexively snagged that iPad faster than you can say, “CRAZY MOM.” After I turned on Safe Search AGAIN and locked it AGAIN, he said, “Okay, Google. ROAR VIDEO.” He loves the song “Roar” by Katy Perry. Know what Google thought he said? Whore video.
Right next to us, my daughter was waiting to download a song from iTunes on my laptop. I told her to wait for me, and she did, but geez, I’m not trying to raise her Amish. I let her do the search while I watched over her shoulder. She wanted to find “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, which says, “I want to see you be brave” in the refrain. Not knowing the name of the song, she just started typing, “I want to se…” Google quickly suggested the auto-fill “I want to sex you up.” Super close, Google. Thanks.
A few weeks ago, we were at a party with family friends. I didn’t realize my daughter’s friend had an old iPhone with Internet access until my daughter ran out of a room saying, “We have to show you this funny song we just saw. I think it’s on a site called Beaver Fever.” I stopped her before she could finish typing in the words. Ummm, yeah. I don’t think so. Her friend’s parents didn’t realize safe search wasn’t on. (And believe me you, they don’t want their kids seeing search results related to beaver fevers either.)
This isn’t half the story. I can’t even tell you all the measures I’ve taken. My point is, those who think it’s easy for parents to keep their kids away from porn and violence, try this for a day: Try going about everyday tasks of life and noticing how many times you see or hear sexual or violent material. Our society is fooling itself if we continue to believe a parent has the power to keep children innocent of the sex and violence that lurk in every dark corner. We don’t, not with the Internet. Especially not with the Internet. Want to know what the fourth most popular search term is on my blog? It’s “toddler’s penis.” The fifth is “little kids private parts.” (Mommy bloggers, if you haven’t done so already, take stock of pictures you’ve posted of your kids on your blog, and of the search terms people are using to find you. Might be time to clean house.)
I know I’m not the first parent to yearn for the innocence of a time gone by. But I do believe I’m in a generation of parents who might need to do more than yearn for it. I’ve kind of had enough of this crap. Parents are outgunned. Kids need to be kids. I just don’t know what to do about it.
[Note to parents: Here’s Google’s quick 411 on how to set up Safe Search on your browser.]