I’ve often remarked to my husband that in a very real sense, I feel like we dodged a major bullet in our parenting of two sons who are now independent young adults. Because of their ages, they grew up in the days when smartphone usage was much more limited. As a result, social media was a non-factor in our lives until their high school years. We were the “mean parents” who did not grant texting privileges until they had graduated from high school. We owned their passwords and their devices. Usage was considered a privilege, not a right. And even so, we made our fair share of mistakes along the way!
Both boys were involved in junior high laptop programs at our local Catholic school well before “cyber security” and “digital footprint” were a part of the common parlance. But even back then, while still accessing the Internet via a clunky dial up, we had to deal on a daily basis with monitoring the content to which they were exposed. A common refrain in our home was, “If it’s not something you’d want your parent, your future spouse or employer, or your pastor to see, you should not write, read, or view it.”
A Digital Playground
Today, in a world where many kindergarteners pack fully charged smartphones in their backpacks, our families are forced to begin having challenging conversations long before we feel emotionally ready for them. I am not yet a grandmother, but I imagine that someday soon, I will be a part of their faith formation. I’ve already begun to think and pray about how I might handle the topics that challenge today's parents, including how to protect them from digital addiction.
As such, I’ve already begun to think and pray about how I might handle the topics that challenge today's parents.
How would I respond to the heartbreaking information that my grandchild had been bullied online?
How would I help them understand how to use the gifts of technology without falling prey to digital addiction?
How would I handle a precious little soul or a beloved teen who came to me and shared, “Grandma, I saw bad photos…”?
While I’ve had these imaginary conversations in my head for the past few years as I frequently write and speak on the topic of technology, I’ll admit that I’m still both saddened and terrified when I imagine the digital “playground” our children now encounter at ever-younger ages. And I am not alone in my concerns. A recent Pew Recent Center study on “Parenting Children in the Age of Screens” cited a vast majority of parents admitting to the challenges of parenting due to the proliferation of smartphones and the popularity of social media platforms. Video streaming services are increasingly popular with families.
“YouTube has emerged as a key platform for both younger and older kids. Fully 89% of parents of a child age 5 to 11 say their child watches videos on YouTube, as do 81% of those who have a child age 3 to 4 and 57% of those who have child age 2 or younger. And while majorities of parents whose child uses YouTube credit the platform for entertaining and educating their children, a majority of these parents are concerned about their child being exposed to inappropriate content on the video sharing site.” (Source)
Whether accidentally or with intent, the day may well come when I am faced with helping my grandchild deal with the aftermath of exposure to pornography.
She could be present when a friend streams objectionable programming on Netflix. He could receive a forwarded image of an inappropriately-clad classmate via text. She could seek out adult content out of curiosity. He could have been exposed to graphic imagery and could develop an addiction.
For these reasons, I’ve given some thought to how I can ready myself to be a helpful companion to my future grandchildren as they enter the terrain of a life lived online. I hope that I am able to sufficiently curtail any shock or anger I may feel to minister to my grandchild with a faithful, loving, pragmatic plan of action.
In their wise advice to families in their formal statement Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography, the USCCB counseled:
“To all parents, you are the guardians of your children and should be their models for chaste love. It is your responsibility to teach your children the true meaning of sexuality and to protect them from pornography. Be vigilant about the technology you allow into your home. Foster openness and trust with your children so they can talk to you about images they have seen.” (Source)
Families who wish to faithfully raise children and grandchildren in today’s world must have a proactive plan to educate digital natives in the same way that we would prepare for their formal education, their reception of the sacraments, or their pathway to independent living activities, such as socializing outside the home with friends or driving.
I’d like to offer a few benchmarks for us to consider as we intentionally plan for how to react if and when our children are exposed to inappropriate content.
Lead With Prayer
When met with the disconcerting fact that a precious young soul has been compromised, it’s likely that our first reaction as grandparents will be anger, fear and deep sorrow. We may be tempted to respond to such an admission with unkind words, tears, and threats. I hope that if I face this situation, I will instead remember the incredible wisdom of one of my personal patron saints, Venerable Patrick Peyton, C.S.C.
Father Peyton, known around the world as the “Rosary Priest”, coined the phrase “The family that prays together stays together.” In any moment of great emotion, it should be our automatic instinct to turn to our Heavenly Father in prayer and to invoke the intercession of Mary and the saints. Prior to speaking any other words to my grandchild, I hope my first response would be to gather him or her into my arms and invite them to join me in asking for God’s protection, mercy and love.
“Thank you for sharing what happened with me. Let’s quiet our hearts and spend a few moments with God in prayer…”
In a very real way, the importance of teaching our children and grandchildren that they are God’s precious creations begins at the moment of their birth. By understanding and teaching the precepts of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” in an age-appropriate fashion, we offer our families a beautiful context in which to treasure the gift of life. I hope to emulate the example of my own parents, who made such conversations very organic in our home.
As the eldest of five children, one of my favorite childhood memories was the “fashion shows” that would happen in our family room a few times each year. Money was tight, but my mother was a gifted seamstress who creatively fashioned dresses and skirts for her three daughters. On the day our dresses were finished, we would don them and brush our long hair. Daddy took to the couch for a “fashion show”. We would each enter the family room while he narrated the highlights of each of our looks: a special bow, a row of matching buttons, or a skirt that flowed perfectly when we’d twirl and spin.
During every fashion show, Daddy would tell us how beautiful we looked. But more importantly, he emphasized how precious we were in the eyes of God. Internal beauty, Daddy would remind us, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We remembered these messages as we began to age and to date. I don’t think it’s any surprise that all three of “Daddy’s girls” are happily married.
From an early age, the reminders shared with our children to cherish and actively embrace purity of body and heart bears beautiful fruit.
“Always remember, my beloved grandchild, that you are God’s precious creation. God has given each of us a body so that we can love and serve each other. God wants us to keep our bodies strong, healthy, and pure. God desires that we treat our own bodies and the bodies of others as sacred and precious.”
Access the Sacrament of Reconciliation
The sacrament of Reconciliation is a tremendous gift of our Catholic faith. As an outward sign of God’s grace, Penance enables us to return to full communion with Jesus Christ and our world.
"The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1131)
While we should be encouraging our families to avail ourselves of the graces of Confession regularly, there may be a more pressing need when a grandchild has exposed himself or herself to pornography willingly. The words of the Bishops’ document offer a beautiful framework for choosing regular Reconciliation and can be suitably expressed for children’s understanding:
“Cultivating chastity takes work, as does any growth in virtue. It is a lifelong task and a daily choice. Be patient, persevere, and do not be discouraged. If you fall, get up again, go to the Lord in confession and seek his mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and start anew. There is no shame in confessing repeated sins of this kind.” (Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography)
While we can never know the state of another’s conscience or their personal relationship with God, facilitating a child’s regular reception of this Sacrament is a gift that will keep giving.
“God loves us so very much and always will, even when we make mistakes. Let’s spend some time examining our relationship with God and others and then go together to seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
Create an Environment for Success
While it may seem too late when a child has been exposed to or willfully chosen to view pornography, it is never too late to create a family culture that reinforces healthy behaviors and choices. As heartbroken and disappointed as you may feel, your grandchild’s future is filled with beauty and potential. Strive for open lines of communication, both with his or her parents and between the child and yourself.
Your grandchild may have come to you with this situation because he or she is frightened to share what they have experienced with their parents. As a loved one and a responsible adult, it is imperative that you share what you know with the child’s parents and that you serve as a companion to them in helping your grandchild.
In certain situations, a child’s exposure to pornography may have come as a result of behavior by their own parent or a sibling. You may need to consult medical and legal advisors to ensure that the exposure is not an incident of abuse and act accordingly.
This being said, there are simple steps every family can and should take to ensure that children are protected. Technological devices such as tablets, laptops and smartphones should only be given to children who are mature enough to use them safely. If a child is already in possession of such a device, a parent or grandparent can determine that the safest course of action is to immediately rescind such privileges.
If use of technology is permitted, a family should create standards for usage such as locations for use, time limits, and permissible content. We should coach and practice with our children to role play how to respond when technology challenges arise outside the home. Parents and grandparents should absolutely model the behavior we desire to see in our loved ones. This means monitoring our own usage, admitting our own infractions, and modifying our own behavior and viewing choices.
If we note in ourselves an incapacity to make healthy choices, we may want to turn for support to organizations such as Catholic in Recovery. Catholic in Recovery is a nonprofit organization that seeks to serve those suffering from addictions and unhealthy attachments (including alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography addiction, sex and relationship addiction, compulsive overeating and food addictions, gambling addiction, codependency and the impact on family, and general fear, control, and anxiety). Families should also consider seeking the support of services such as Covenant Eyes to create a culture of healthy screen accountability and healing from past exposure to pornography.
“I love you so much. I am so very blessed to be your grandparent. You can always come to me any time to talk about anything. I will always be here to support you and to protect you. I know it can be very hard when everyone else is doing something and you choose not to do it. God made you for an extraordinary mission. You are special, you are loved, and you are never alone.”
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