Sunday 16 December 2018

Dear David Coleman: I found pornography on a phone my son got from his mum. Should I be concerned?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I'm separated and my 11 and 13-year-old sons have smartphones for me to contact them. The boys know that I regularly check the phones. When doing so, I noticed that there was a considerable history of browsing pornography on one phone. My son said it wasn't him, that he got the phone from his mum. I was very concerned that his mum gave him the phone, with this content on it. When asked, she denied all knowledge and brushed it off. I now question her judgement and am concerned that she seems so blasé. Should I be concerned?

David replies: Before determining if you should be concerned, it is important to know what exactly you might be concerned about. Is the concern that someone is lying to you? Is it that someone was accessing pornography?

The only thing that you can definitively know is that somebody was looking up pornography on the phone as the digital trail doesn't lie. You seem assured that it was your ex-wife, even though she also denies knowing about the browsing history - why are you so sure it was her?

Were you able to see, from the browsing history, when the pornographic sites were accessed? Did this prove that they were accessed at some time in the past, while your ex-wife still owned and was still using the phone? Even if they do, could it have been that someone else (your son or another friend, perhaps) was using her phone with or without her permission?

She may, genuinely, have been unaware that her phone had been used by someone to access pornography. Or maybe she isn't telling you the truth.

There are many reasons why either your son, or ex-wife, might be motivated to lie about the content on the phone. Neither may want to be on the "wrong" side of you. Perhaps one or other of them has made poor browsing choices and may fear that they will be judged negatively because of that.

Even if your ex-wife was the one who accessed the pornography, she has done nothing wrong by looking at it, unless it was illegal material. Perhaps it was ill-judged or unwise, but it doesn't make her a bad person. Even if she did make an error of judgement in one area of life, it doesn't, necessarily, call into question her judgement in other areas of life.

It seems that giving the phone to her son without factory resetting it to permanently erase all of the content was a mistake she made. If this is the case, then there is useful learning for her for future times when she may be passing on technology to others for their ownership and use.

There may also be useful learning for her about the wisdom of using pornography herself (if that is what she did), and the message it may give to her sons about what is OK or not OK.

In my experience, the best way to ensure she could take on board any of this kind of learning is by having an open and non-judgemental conversation about it.

Perhaps it may help you, in deciding how to move things forward, to be clear about your own current motivation for addressing this issue. Is it primarily to ensure that no further mistakes, that might expose your sons to inappropriate sexual content, can occur? Or, is it equally important to be able to "points score" in any conflict between you and your ex-wife?

If the former is the goal, then it is about finding the means to have the open discussions about smartphones, their safe and wise usage and the dangers of pornography. If your communication with your ex-wife is good enough then maybe it's time to sit around the table for a family meeting, including your sons in the discussion.

If communication isn't currently good enough for this, then your focus can be on improving your communication so that you can discuss these issues openly.

Be wary of using this issue to try to gain leverage in any conflict. Doing so will probably further polarise things between you and your ex-wife. Keep your children and their needs as your paramount consideration. Your goal is simply to avoid further situations where they may be exposed to pornography.

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