Therapists are required to get continuing education to maintain our professional licenses and I recently attended a workshop on youth and pornography.  The information presented was not good news, but I was glad I attended because I found out my education in this area was definitely out of date!

Current data says that the average age of first exposure to internet pornography is 11 years old.  Eleven!  Ninety percent of 8 to 16 year olds have viewed pornography on-line.   Some of this exposure is accidental on the part of the child—meaning that the child did not intend to view pornography but rather ended up on a pornographic site by accident.  Many pornographic websites include names of characters searched by children such as names of superheroes or cartoon characters.  There are 4.2 million pornographic websites available which represents 12% of all websites.   Whether the first exposure is accidental or purposeful, youth often go back to porn sites.  Eighty percent of 15 to 17 year olds report multiple exposures to hard-core pornography.

In a digital world, everyone has access to pornography

I would guess there are probably pornographic cave drawings around somewhere.  It seems like pornography has always existed in one form or another.  And regardless of our opinions about it for adults, it is not healthy for children to be exposed to pornography.  Back in the olden days (pre-internet), pornographic material was less available to youth because it was a physical product—that is, it was on paper or on film or video and it had to be purchased or physically shared between people.   The internet has brought these images into our homes and into public places like schools and libraries.  Smart phones literally put porn in every pocket.

However, one of the most closely held values in the US is our right to free speech and this includes speech that may be offensive or considered improper by a large majority of us.  So this means pornography is not going away.   

Should parents be concerned?

Here are my concerns about pornography from a therapist’s and a parent’s viewpoint—it presents non-relationship sex, emphasizing physical appearance, physical stimulation and sexual gratification outside of the context of knowing someone and caring about him/her.  It encourages sex which is disassociated from feelings and interpersonal connection.

Pornography also contains high amounts of violence and coercion.  Coercing someone and being coerced is presented as exciting.  Women tend to be presented as objects and are portrayed as something to be used as a means to a man’s gratification, emphasizing again that the highest aim is satisfying one’s own needs and desires.

Sex with multiple partners and without concern for the use of condoms for STD prevention or any type of birth control is the norm in pornography.  Pornography is also highly addictive, especially for teens.  Many teens have a normal social awkwardness that they need to work through.  If they seek gratification by watching pornography, this activity can become obsessive and can prevent them from going to the trouble of establishing real person to person relationships.

Is your house safe-guarded from pornography?

Some parents have taken comfort in the idea of parental controls on computers or search histories but this can give a false sense of security.  As soon as a parental control is created, dozens of people start working on ways to get around the control.  Any teen can tell you how to thwart a search history—they have learned to do it on their school computers AND their home computers.  And as tablets and smart phones become the norm, the idea of everyone in a family using a home computer is quickly becoming outdated.

How can we protect our children?

Like it or not, it is important that we discuss this topic with our children.  And I really mean children–even those in elementary school.   A good time to introduce the topic to younger kids is when we’re talking to them about privacy.   First, we usually teach kids about knocking on doors and general modesty.  As we talk about the proper names for their body parts, we begin to address keeping the private parts of their bodies private.   This usually includes an explanation about who can see them without clothes—parents and other close caregivers, medical providers, siblings.  We can include discussion of photographs at this time and let kids know that other adults and older kids should not be taking pictures of them without clothes or showing them pictures of people without clothes.   We can introduce the idea that looking at inappropriate material violates the privacy of others.

One of the reasons younger kids might look at inappropriate material on the internet is because they are curious about bodies.  You can decide how you want to educate your child as to the difference between boys and girls or men and women, but it is important that they are educated.  When my son was in 4th or 5th grade, we found a sex education book that had line drawings of males and females of various races and body sizes.  That book helped him with a lot of the things he was curious about and the material in it fit our values system and philosophy on sexuality education.  There are lots of good resources to choose from.

Whenever your child learns to use a computer, talk to them about the good uses and bad uses of the internet.  This discussion can begin with television—watch TV with your children (I hear parents groaning at this suggestion) but watching TV with your kids give you an opportunity to help them learn learn about how media influences us with everything from advertisements to telling us what is cool or uncool to do and say.  Plus, it sets the stage for you to share your opinions and values with your kids and encourages them to do the same with you.

Remember that dialogue with your kids involves more listening than talking.  It is tempting to pounce on their misconceptions but you’ll learn a lot more if you ask how they learned about what they’re saying or how they decided on their opinion.  After you’ve listened, share your opinions and the reasons you think what you do.

And speaking of opinions, it is important that we as parents think through our opinions about pornography, sexual material and education about sexuality.  Do we have different thoughts about sexual material when it comes to gender—do we think that “boys will be boys” and therefore have different thoughts about boys looking at pornography?   If we are co-parenting, how much alignment exists between what we think and what our partner or the other parent of our child thinks?  We don’t have to have the same thoughts or approach but it’s good to know the opinions of the other people who will be addressing the questions our children may ask.

Answers lie in staying connected to your kids and establishing some connection with their friends.  Make sure they have live friends—other kids you see and meet.  Too many kids do the majority of their socializing on line these days.  It can be challenging to maintain open communication with your kids when they hit those years when they naturally withdraw, but traditions like family dinners, family game nights, days when no one uses electronics in the car, talks before bed and walks around the block can help keep the door open.

Use news stories or even this blog as a way to open a conversation with your kids.  Ask them what they’ve seen on-line or what their friends have seen and then hold your breath and count to ten before you react.  Ask about their reaction to what they saw first.  Help them process their experience.

Let your kids know about your own awkwardness in relationships when you were first dating or getting romantically interested in others.  Model healthy closeness in your friendships and relationships and talk about the satisfaction of in-person vs. cyber connection.   Let them know that their curiosity about sex is normal but share your concerns about unhealthy sources of information.   Provide sources of information that reflect your values.   If you start communication about the topic of inappropriate sexual material early and keep it going, you can share your wisdom and values with your child. 

They really do listen to us more than they let on.  And they need us longer than they think.

Have you had the pornography talk with your kids? What advice do you have for other parents?

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