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Sexually Abused at a Sleepover – 5 Lessons for Parents

Abused at Sleepover

Sexually Abused at a Sleepover – 5 Lessons for Parents

Are Sleepovers a Good Idea in the Digital Age?

This is the question I want to explore in this blog post. It might be summer time when you’re reading this, which means your kids are spending more time in other places. Sleepovers might happen more frequently.

I remember loving sleepovers while growing up. I was one of those kids who spent a ton of time at other homes (maybe because I had six siblings and needed the break!). On the street where I spent my elementary years, my clan and I rotated between three homes regularly during the summer, enjoying pizza, ice cream, movies, sweets, and late, late nights. Were there risks? Absolutely. We could burn things (and we did). We could share new words (and we did). We could sneakily stay up late and catch an R-rated flick on HBO (and we did).

[Note – if you’ve been with PYE for a while, this blog post has been updated considerably from a previous version originally published in 2016]

A Real Sleepover Story

I received this Facebook message from a mom:

“Hi Chris – I am reaching out to you because I know that you are very knowledgeable and passionate about protecting children from the dangers of the internet and porn. I am looking for some help/resources to help guide me through a tough situation I am dealing with in regards to my 11 (almost 12) year old son.

Two years ago, my 11-year old became friends with a boy up the street who came from (what I thought) was a very good home. I’d had lots of conversations with the mom as the kids swam and played, she was very involved, this kid had lots of limitations, was well supervised, etc.

One night my son was invited to stay the night. I allowed this. I told the mom my rules on internet, movies, etc. and she was on the same page. This was two years ago.

A few weeks ago my son came to me and ask if he could talk to me. He told me that that night this child showed him porn (and at the time we had not had the talk with my son about porn or sex so he was very confused) and asked him to lick his privates. To my dismay and serious heart break my son played along. Not only that but he waited two years to tell me.

After that overnight, my son chose to never play with this kid again. I thought that was odd so I asked him why but he just said he was mean and didn’t like playing with him, so I thought nothing of it.

My son and I have a very open relationship, we talk about a lot and he asks me a lot of questions…he’s very comfortable talking to me. It was just too much for him to come to me with this awful thing and confess…it took him nearly two years.

My son has been experiencing A LOT of guilt and shame. I’ve talked to him for hours upon hours about it, I have not shamed him…I’ve let him cry on my shoulder, I’ve prayed over him time and time and time again, I’ve been a rock for him and a safe place to talk.  I’ve explained that I wish he would have said no and left, called me, or told his mom, but he didn’t…and he wished he would have too. I’ve told him Jesus forgives all sin, that this situation does not define who you are.  He said he was afraid to say no.

He doesn’t smile, his personality has been altered because of this with guilt and shame he cannot deal with.  Honestly over the past year or better I’ve noticed him withdrawing, not smiling, just not being his normal joyful self. We hurt, we are angry.”

This is a hard story to read. It was a difficult situation to work through with a mom who was hurting and broken because she was dealing with unbelievable guilt – thinking that she should have figured it out sooner or could have prevented it in some way.

It’s a story that she wanted me to share with as many parents as possible. There are lessons for all of us.

Lesson 1: Digital Doorways are Everywhere

Sleepover doorways

Credit: Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

During our parent presentations we remind parents of this reality. And, it’s another unfortunate reality that we don’t have control over all of the digital doorways. 

As it pertains to the sleepover: there are very few productive online activities that happen after 10pm. Should there be a turn-in time for devices? What about shutting off the router at a certain time? What about sitting all the kids down who are sleeping over and explaining your home’s rules for using the internet?

Remember this – if there is access to the unfiltered internet at a sleepover, this gives kids access to over a billion websites, of which, anywhere from 10- 20% of them are pornographic. This means 100-200 million pornographic opportunities. To put this in analog terms, back when I was a kid, this would be no different than having multiple, hormonal kids spend the night in a home with 10 rooms, and in one of the rooms there was an orgy happening, and you just hope they don’t open the door to the wrong room. It might be a slight exaggeration, but I hope the point is made. The unfiltered Internet, whether accessed through a browser or an app (did you know you can get to porn Twitter in the Bible app, even with Restrictions set?), is rife with pornographic content. 

Lesson 2: Peer-on-Peer Sexual Abuse is on the Rise

Boys at a Sleepover

Sleepovers might provide the perfect environment to carry out certain curiosities based on what they’re seen online.

According to a 2017 article from The Guardian:

“Almost 30,000 reports of children sexually assaulting other youngsters, including 2,625 alleged attacks on school premises, have been made to police in the last four years, figures reveal.

The data released by 38 of the 43 forces in England and Wales, in response to freedom of information requests, showed reports of so-called “peer on peer” abuse rose from 4,603 in 2013 to 7,866 last year – an increase of 71%.”

A friend of mine who works for a local non-profit agency that assesses and counsels minors who have committed sexual offenses against other minors reported to me that for all cases during the year 2016, all of the offenders had one thing in common – they experienced early exposure to pornography (early  = elementary school).

First observed in primates, mirror neurons represent a special class of neurons that activate both when an individual performs an action and also when that same individual observes an action performed by someone else.

According to a 2012 publication in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine, Drs. Sourya Acharya and Samarth Shukla state, “In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex.”

Therefore, I yawn when someone else yawns. I smile when someone else smiles. And, yes, they likely account for a child’s uncanny ability to mimic that which he/she observes with amazing precision.

In other words, a child who sees pornography is likely to have a strong desire to want to try whatever he or she observed. Not because they’re bad kids, but because there may be a neurological tug to do so.

As it pertains to the sleepover: wherever there’s technology, a responsible adult should be present. And, as a parent who has a child spending the night somewhere else, your knowledge about that family, their digital rules, and the tendencies of their child are abundantly important.

Recently, I received an update from the family who experienced the sexual abuse at the sleepover. Here was mom’s response:

“We have just finished discussing the no sleepover rule for our family going forward.  With exception of two to three families who we are very close with and share the same morals, values, Internet restrictions, bedtime routines, and most importantly A love for Jesus.”

Related Post: 4 Most Dangerous Places for Kids to be Online

Lesson 3: Shame Affects All Ages

This mother was crushed by the reality that her son had carried this dark secret for two years. Shackled by shame, thinking there was something wrong with him, which kept him quiet. He finally buckled under the weight of his secret, but not before a massive amount of emotional trauma was done. Although mom has him in therapy, only time will tell how effectively he will be able to move on from the experience.

As it pertains to the sleepover: be inquisitive about the sleepover experience. Look for anything that might indicate something wrong. Recently, my son spent the night with some relatives. He came home quite upset about something and didn’t want to spend the night there again. Immediately, my radar was on high alert for something that might have happened while he was away. It ended up being nothing but me and my wife were gently inquisitive until we discovered the truth. 

Lesson 4: Have the Porn Talk Before the Sleepover

Unfortunately, this young man didn’t have any tools in his digital tool belt to know what pornography really was, what to do if he saw it, and his parents hadn’t provided a clear, open communication door should anything “unusual” ever happen.

This was the line from mom: “…and at the time we had not had the talk with my son about porn or sex so he was very confused.”

As it pertains to the sleepover: In the digital age, we believe all 9-year-olds should have at least a minimal understanding of what pornography is, what to do immediately upon seeing it, and that mom and dad are safe to talk to about anything.

Related post: How to Talk to a 5-year-old About Pornography

Lesson 5: Filter/Monitor all Internet Devices

It seems obvious, but we have to keep saying it. The unfiltered internet is not a friendly place for a child (or anyone). We suggest the following three layers of protection for all of the places where kids spend time online. These would be great to discuss with the families and relatives where your kids might spend the night.

  • Guard the location – where kids use technology often dictates how they use technology. And, don’t forget about summer camp or church mission trips – if devices go with kids on those trips (which they often do), then take the right precautions.
  • Guard the wireless router – remember, you are responsible for every click on every router.
  • Guard the device – when the iPhone or Android isn’t using your WIFI, is it adequately controlled?

Related post: 3 Reasons for Greater Internet Risk During the Summer

As it pertains to the sleepover: The call-to-action below will point you to Resources we recommend for controlling internet-ready devices and for controlling your home’s router during that sleepover.

Are sleepovers a good idea in the digital age?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

We think the answer is one of “proceed with caution.” The risks are much, much different now 30+ years after my prime sleepover years on Autumn Lane. Remember, parents who are observant, engaged, and informed often have kids who learn to use technology – and navigate sleepovers – well.


Now What? Visit our Resources Page!

Are you ready to have awesome conversations with your kids about how to use their technology well? Do you want access to free videos to watch with your kids about tough, digital topics, including pornography? Would you like to know what parental control solutions we recommend? What about bilingual videos that teach parents about the latest digital trends? All of these are available in our Resources. You can visit them today!

Internet Safety Resources for Parents

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Living life to the full! That's why He died and how I try to live. I have an eclectic list of professional experience...CPA, business advisor, youth pastor, development director, now educational resource manager for Covenant Eyes. God shares wild ideas with me about life while I run. I want to show parents how to protect their kids from online dangers, which led to the creation of Protect Young Eyes. We recently created Virtue in Media, the first digital citizenship curriculum based on Scripture (www.virtueinmedia.com).

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7 Comments
  • Laura Selenka
    Posted at 20:52h, 18 June

    Thank you for your articlou and your passion for these topics. I always walk away feeling empowered as a Christian parent or with important food for thought, One question here, though- what is an example of a way in which you would explain pornogrophy in an age appropriate way to a 9 year old? I’m at a loss as to how I would even try that with my 12 year old.

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 21:14h, 18 June

    Hi, Laura – can you just call it what it is? My perspective on it is that it’s just a word. It’s a word that is used to describe pictures of naked people either in paper or on the computer. This is the devil’s way of taking something that is supposed to be private, between a husband and wife, and making it public. Some things are private, and that’s ok. That’s all. Just a word and if they see it or hear about it, you’re definitely ok that they tell you. Have you seen the video we created at Protect Young Eyes that talks about pornography? You can access it here by dropping in your email after you click on “Videos to Watch with Your Kids.” It’s free and I hope it’s helpful for your 12-year-old.

    Warmly,
    Chris

  • Johnathan Howard
    Posted at 00:28h, 29 August

    Sexual experimentation between children of the same age isn’t abuse. It’s a natural part of growing up. I understand the desire to be involved in your child’s life but at the end of the day this was just him trying out something new and learning something about himself, it’s nobody’s business but his own and it doesn’t make the other boy an abuser.

  • Johnathan Howard
    Posted at 00:30h, 29 August

    My bad, just realised this is a Christian site, thought it was general.

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 23:54h, 31 August

    When the experience is directly tied to pornography, don’t you think it’s different? This 9-year-old didn’t know how to process the event. He needed an adult to help him figure out what had happened. Keeping it to himself is what crushed him.

  • Chris McKenna
    Posted at 23:56h, 31 August

    I’m wondering – from your view, what impact does that have? The blog post was faith-free – a concerned mom and a hurt boy. There’s lessons for many families, regardless of faith.

  • Jen Bruni
    Posted at 11:44h, 11 October

    Hey, my heart goes out to the mom in this situation. I’m concerned that she accidentally laid more guilt on her child by saying “you should have just left.” He probably felt conflicted… he was only 11 and should have been protected by the adults in the situation. How many 11 year olds do you know that have the confidence to walk out of someone’s home at night when something’s going wrong? Also, perhaps he was a little curious at first… God made our sexuality and it is powerful which is why we believe He wants us to enjoy it with the right boundaries. Perhaps part of the shame is that he had no idea what he was getting into but maybe it felt tempting… Is there any way the mom can revisit and let him be angry/sad/disgusted that he was a victim and quite a helpless one at that age? It’s not too late to explore deeper layers of emotion for both the kid and the family (the parents must be ENRAGED at this neighbor, right?), and perhaps in expressing that anger toward who he should be angry at, he won’t be so angry and disappointed in himself.

    Thank you for this article – I hope it will shine light in the darkness and help us make good decisions as parents, but we also have to be very careful not to blame the kids when our protection fails. So thankful to have a Redeemer who can handle this deep pain and brokenness and bring healing to our wounds. So thankful for Protect Young Eyes for helping us, too!

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