Talking to Your Kids About Online Porn

By Tracey Dowdy

When I was a kid, some of the neighborhood boys kept a stash of “dirty magazines” in a dilapidated outhouse near one of their homes. It was the 1970’s not the 1870’s and we all had indoor plumbing, so it was obvious what they were up to if we saw them sneaking in or out of that outhouse.

Now it’s so easy to access porn that Playboy announced late last year that it would no longer publish pictures of nudes in its magazine. As Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told the New York Times, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

One click away indeed. Porn has become so accessible that it’s not a matter of if your kids will be exposed so much as when. Take it from Elizabeth Schroeder, Executive Director of Answer, a national sex-education organization based at Rutgers University, “Your child is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.”

Consider these statistics from the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding:

  • The average age of a child’s first exposure to Internet pornography is 11
  • The 12-17-year age group is the largest consumer of Internet pornography
  • Only 3 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls have never seen Internet pornography

Do those numbers surprise you? Sadly, they shouldn’t. Just last year my husband, a family therapist, was part of a research study on youth and sexuality. His team was looking for a control group of 11-year-old boys who had not been exposed to online pornography but they weren’t able to find any. None. Not one.

By now it’s obvious that either by accident or design, your child is going to see images that perhaps neither you nor your child are ready to see. Having “the talk” used to be a conversation about biology and a responsible approach toward sex as a young adult, but now we need to include a third topic: online pornography.

Even with age-appropriate filters on laptops and other devices, exposure is as easy as a forwarded sext from a friend or a few clicks on YouTube. When it happens, it’s important you react as you would with any other behavior or activity that you’re unhappy with and you have a measured response.

Though experts stress the importance of having that conversation before Pandora’s box is opened, sometimes it’s too late. Either way, it’s important for us to talk to our kids – boy and girl – no matter how awkward or embarrassing.

  • If your child has been exposed to porn, respond don’t react. In other words, don’t freak out. Normalize their behavior. Curiosity about bodies, sex, and sexuality are a normal part of childhood development. What is important in this situation is to help your child understand that what’s portrayed in pornography is not an accurate depiction of real life relationships. One dad used WWE wrestling as an analogy to help his son understand that what is portrayed is often fake.
  • Make the issue about pornography and not the child. Use a “no shame, no blame” approach and have a conversation instead of giving a lecture. While keeping the discussion age-appropriate, focus on what they’ve seen, not what they’ve done. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be consequences, but rather than a Draconian “No more internet ever!” approach, discuss what the consequences should be and follow through. The point of discipline is to change behavior, not simply to punish your child.
  • Keep it simple. Let’s be honest – this is going to be an awkward conversation for both of you. Keep the language simple, know where you’re going before you get started, and be open to where your child’s questions lead. Use examples or illustrations that will resonate with your kids – video games, movies, TV shows, or even the WWE like the dad in the earlier example.
  • Listen. Just listen and let them lead. This is an emotionally charged issue, it’s embarrassing, it’s uncomfortable, but when possible let your child direct the conversation. Allowing them a measure of control takes some of the fear away and can open the door to a more honest dialogue. Ask open ended questions like “How do you feel about what you saw?”
  • Depending on the age and maturity of the child, talk about the impact of pornography on society and on individual relationships. There are numerous studies linking pornography to individuals who commit sex crimes and while obviously not everyone who looks at porn becomes a sex offender, constant exposure to the unrealistic portrayal of sex can lead to distorted perspectives and expectations and have an impact on their real-world relationships.
  • Watch their response to what they’ve seen. Not only has pornography become more accessible, it’s become increasingly graphic and violent. Depending on their age and what they’ve seen, your child may be traumatized by the images. Often kids are overwhelmed and confused, so keep an eye out for changes in behavior or indications they may need additional help coming to terms with what they’ve seen.

Just as with any other risky or inappropriate behavior your child engages in, your response is critical. If you freak out and shame your child, often they will not feel safe coming to you with questions or concerns in the future. If you want them to turn to you for answers and not their peers (or god-forbid, the Internet), then a calm, understanding response will make all the difference.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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