Normally, writing this weekly column does not present many difficulties. However, in my regular sweep of news and information sources highlighting elements of teen and family life, a colleague provided a link to an article that shocked me. Truly this was an unusual experience: in my years as a teacher and counselor I have seen much, and I am finding fewer and fewer news stories that take me by surprise. Until this week, that is. I feel compelled to address a topic that have yet to touch on since this column began, that of online pornography and its accessibility to children and teens.

A news story published last week in the English newspaper The Daily Mail told the story of a 13 year-old boy and his family, whose lives were turned upside down after a visit by police informed them that child pornography was being accessed from somewhere in the home. Before long, disturbing images were discovered on his laptop computer, and a home life that centered largely around accessing pornography of all kinds was revealed, ultimately leading to the young teen being placed on the British Sex Offender Register, designating him as being a heightened threat to the public. Most of us are aware of such registries for these offenders, but having someone so young on one is almost unimaginable, regardless of where it occurs.

Though this took place in England, is there a possibility that similar behaviours among teens are happening here in Canada and the Okanagan? While I have yet to hear of a 13 year-old in Canada being placed on a sex offender registry for similar offences, it seems well within the realm of possibility that there are young people around us with unsupervised access to a computer who actively engage in finding and viewing images that most of us would find disturbing. Even the presence of such a possibility should be a concern to us all, especially when one considers the significant damage that pornography can do to a young, developing mind.

One of the main reasons online pornography is such an insidious threat comes from its unprecedented accessibility to virtually anyone. No longer is access to such material guarded by the more traditional gatekeepers such as grimacing store clerks who keep restricted magazines well away from young hands, or an embarrassment of being caught by family members; viewing these materials can now be done easily, with little or no cost, and in near-complete anonymity. All that is required is a computer or smartphone, internet access, and large periods of unsupervised time. A simple explanation of doing homework, or viewing online TV programs can provide sufficient time and cover to engage in accessing images that none of us would wish any young person to see.

In this new world of online freedom, it is important to understand what can be occurring for a young person regularly accessing pornographic materials, especially those of a profoundly disturbing nature as detailed in the news story. As the 13 year-old remarked, he started to think constantly of what he was seeing online, and had difficulty concentrating on school work and even maintaining his own friendships simply because he could not wait to get back to his computer and “see what else I could find”. Right away, two of the most important elements in the life of almost any young person were seriously restricted, as his “real” world became increasingly smaller and less significant to him. Meanwhile, his foray into the ever-deeper and darker world of pornography proceeded without obstruction.

In next week’s column, we will look in more detail at what can happen to the normal growth and development of a young person’s relationships with others as a result of heavy exposure to pornography, as well as what you can do as parents to help minimize the chance your pre-teen or teenager has the opportunity to go down the same road as the boy in the news story.