It happened to a child in our family for the first time this week. It was late in the afternoon and our oldest daughter (age 8) was at the dining room table on a dictionary website looking up vocabulary words when all of the sudden she froze and started crying. I can't even begin to describe the terrible things that popped up on her screen - let's just say it was not mild but some of the most heinous things I've ever seen. It took us a while to calm her down. So where do we go from there?
How can you help a child who accidentally stumbled across pornography?
While nothing can take the terrible images out of their little heads, here are four steps you can take to help them.
1) Assure your child that they did the right thing by coming to you.
In our home we have a rule that if anything inappropriate pops up on a screen that you immediately look away and call/scream for a parent (this should literally take 1 second). This ensures that 1) the child doesn't have to look at the pornography for one more second and 2) as the kids get older if we walk into a room and they claim it "just" popped up we can call the claim bogus because they would have called for us.
Our kids know they will NEVER get in trouble for coming to us if they immediately call us because something popped up. In the above incident, we discovered Abbie had accidentally clicked on an unrelated ad and she felt terrible for "making" it come. We were able to assure her that it wasn't her fault, but that she should take special care to stay away from ads in the future.
2) Allow your child to cry and be upset.
Pornography is not OK and it's good for our children to recognize that it's disturbing. We let our daughter cry and I held her. I didn't say, "Stop crying. It's no big deal." I said, "It's OK to cry sweetie. Those pictures were awful and terrible. No one should ever have to see those things."
3) Be with your child as they start using the internet again.
Abbie did NOT want to get back on the computer after her incident. She was terrified of seeing terrible things again, but reality is she had to get back on to finish her dictionary assignment and in future days she'll have more research to do. As the old saying goes, "You have to get back on the horse that threw you," BUT she didn't have to get on that horse alone. I sat right beside her to ensure everything was going smoothly, so she felt comfortable in front of a screen again. She showed me the "innocent" ad boxes, and assured me she would never click one again. We navigated the internet together until she was comfortable.
4) If possible, figure out what went wrong so the incident doesn't occur again.
Did your computer re-start recently and turn off your safe search? Did the filter on your router break? Double check that all of your safeties are working. Sometimes things get past safeties - that's just reality, but it's our job as parents to do our best to make sure they're in place. In our situation all the safeguards were working, but we still double checked them to make sure we were doing all we could.
Despite all we do to protect our children, they may still see pornography, but we can let them know it's safe to come to us when they do.