I admit, it is hard for me to write ‘porn’ and ‘kids’ in the same sentence.  It is just an uncomfortable topic.  There are a wide variety of opinions about it similar to sex education. Do you tell them 100% you better not look at it?  Do you just make it hard for them to access? Do you avoid the topic?  What are the best age appropriate things to say to kids about porn?

I had someone tell me they worried that my first article in the series was too pro-porn (it wasn’t) and that I seemed to be promoting porn use for kids (nope). If you were to ask my teenage son about my thoughts of him watching porn as a young teenager, he would attest to my dissuasion of him looking at porn. He may go as far as say I nagged, embarrassed and was desperate within this topic, but firm and consistent.  And he’d be correct.  With most things parent related, you just do your best, ask friends and Dr. Google how to handle things and hope you don’t screw up your kid too much.

This is why I wanted to write this article in the series. I want to share what I’ve learned from my mistakes and successes, and give you guidance on how to go about this for your children.

I start by clearly stating this is not an article JUST for parents of boys. If you have a child, this article is for you no matter gender or age. Porn use and exposure is not gendered.  Porn use and exposure is also not about socio- economic class or race or religion.  It was pretty easy 30 years ago to snag a Playboy or find someone’s father in your group of friends who had videos hidden somewhere.  But with the Internet, computers everywhere and smart phones found in millions of families, easy access to porn has reached a whole new level of access for kids of all ages.

Statistics vary and I don’t think we have reliable data yet on the subject so I won’t be reporting specific studies about porn use and exposure in various ages of children. In short: from my professional experience and conversations with kids and parents, porn use and exposure is rampant in kids. My (not scientifically validated) estimate is porn exposure among kids under 10 it is 40%, 11-15 is 70 % and for 16-20 it has got to be close to 96%.  Do those statistics surprise you?

Kids still have access to good ol’ fashioned porn like printed magazines and older DVD collections but in this article I am focusing on Internet-accessed porn.

What is porn exposure?

Porn exposure is passively or actively seeing pornographic material.

What is porn use?

Actively seeking porn for curiosity, arousal material, or masturbatory use.

Younger than 10

Story:

A friend called me and told me the story of her 9 year old son walking home from the bus stop and asking her “What is porn Mom?”.  She froze and fumbled through her response. She had prepared herself over the years for the ‘where do babies come from’ question but not this one.  She ended up asking him where he heard the word and he explained that a friend on the bus told him he saw porn on his computer at home and he got in trouble for it. Her son, though, didn’t know what porn was or why he would get in trouble for it, and was too embarrassed to ask.  My friend knew the mother of the child so she called her and asked more about the situation and told her what her son had said. She explained that her son was on their computer kitchen searching for “black bears” after a discussion they had on the difference between black and brown bears being more than just their color.  When she looked up from cutting veggies, she saw his face was a mixture of horror and fascination. Thinking it was a gory bear fight she went over to him to click out of it and she saw he was looking at hairy men engaged in sex acts.  She reacted really strongly and recognized later that’s why he thought he was in trouble.   She clicked out of it quickly and feverishly and told him it was really bad things to look at, and got then walked around a circle a few times feeling guilty and stunned, and mad at the Internet for robbing her son of his innocence.  She called a friend and that’s how he must have heard the word ‘porn’.  At the end of the story, my friend didn’t know what to say to her either.  So she called me.

Most of the conversation that followed was about how frustrating it is to try to shield kids from innocent exposure.

How the majority are exposed via the Internet:

  • Innocent searches.

Porn being left on computer or phone and they see it when they get on it either in an open window or browser history.

Walking in on someone in the home on the computer.

An older sibling, friend’s older sibling or a friend who has already been exposed showing them porn.

Important messages:

Starting about age 6 you can start talking about computer safety, and that there are some things on the internet that aren’t great for kids to see.

You know your kid and will know if he or she is ready for more info.  If so, you can continue with advice on how to click off of bad images or how to handle seeing it on someone else’s computer/phone .

Give a short phrase and two behaviors that fit your family.  Example: “Let’s look at something else like…..” or  tell your friend you need to go to the bathroom or ask your friend to play a game outside.  The point at this age is to keep it simple, non confrontational to their peer, and to not make them think they have done something bad if they click on it accidently or seem curious themselves.

Depending on your child, you can bring up the term ‘porn’, explain it is something that shows people having sex and it is something that your family doesn’t believe is best for him or her and end it with telling your child that they can ask you about it anytime they have questions.  Make sure your tone is friendly, the content is short but your child knows you aren’t afraid to talk about it and are a safe ally for them on this subject.

There are several things you can do with your computers/devices and phones to lessen the likelihood of accidental exposure.

  1. Devices: If your child has a smart phone or constant access to yours, access parent filters on the device.
  2. Internet access: Home computers and Wi-Fi/internet access, you can use a DNS server with content filtering. This is a little complicated but it is possible.  You can ask your service provider for help.
  3. Internet browser: Utilize the parental controls built into the browser and make sure you do this on all browsers on the device.

Other tips:

  • You can monitor their phone/ipad/tablet use to be around you only so you have a visual on what they are looking at.

Keep the family computer or laptop in a public place with the screen facing towards you  so you can see what they are looking at.

Have a password for parental controls, browser or Wi-Fi so you know when they are on line. Be diligent about not giving it out to siblings.

If you are looking at porn on line, make sure to close all windows after use, clear history/use privacy settings and keep usage to times when the child will not be around or awake.

For the record: I think it is very important to do what you can to limit children’s exposure to porn and that it is not healthy for kids at this age to have multiple exposures to it and not healthy for a child to see hard core images or extremely graphic material.  That may be obvious but I’m putting it on the record.  Don’t be passive in this area.  Accidental exposure happens more than you think and may be something you never know about if you don’t take the steps to both prevent and have the topic be something that can be talked about in your family.

Pre teen/early teen 11-15

Story:

I had a load of laundry in my hands headed to the washing machine and saw my husband talking to three of our four boy who were lined up the back staircase.  As I rounded the corner, I heard my husband say “Oh good! I want Mom to say what she thinks.” One of my stepsons posed the question to me “If we aren’t allowed to look at porn in this house then what do we do when we need to masturbate?” Even with this as my career, I was not prepared for that question at that time.  I pivoted and asked my husband what he had already said.  It was “For hundreds of years, individuals used their imagination and you can too. You don’t NEED porn to masturbate.”  This led to a series of questions that were uncomfortable and hard to know what the ‘right’ answer was for the moment…. Does Victoria Secrets catalog count?  What do you use Dad?  Juliana? “ I felt immobilized by my desire to really get it right and to hit all the important points—masturbation is healthy, our family values didn’t include porn use for children, yes we masturbate but we don’t need to give details (or should we? ), how does our family define porn, it is great we can talk about it and it is wonderful our blended family was navigating such hard discussions, moms and dads should both be in the discussions……….. All in a few seconds I tried to get my mind wrapped around it when all I was planning on doing was sorting darks and lights.  But that’s how it goes with sex and sexuality. You can’t always plan it and most of the important parts happen spontaneously.

How the majority are exposed:

Curiosity.  About what porn is, about what boobs look like, looking to see if their genitals are ‘normal’. You name it, they are interested in seeing it.  We grew up differently in regards to information gathering. If we wanted to know something, we had encyclopedias and National Geographic and libraries or had to know someone who knew. There was little privacy in finding out things you wanted to find out about.

Our kids are used to Googling and searching anywhere and everywhere and they know how to search using privacy settings and know how to clear histories.  If they want to know which celebrities have ‘three nipples’ while on the bus, they can look it up.  And show their friends.

Hormones are raging and masturbation is typically in full bloom.  Most children are exposed to the association of porn and masturbation. They seem to go hand in hand to many.

The media, the news, pop up ads, friends. The ways to get exposed and to use are too numerous to list.

Kids are also exposed through sexting, sending pictures of self and receiving pictures from peers and seeing things on apps/sites like Tumblr, Snapchat private messages.

Sexting, sending and receiving pictures of self and peers, anonymous apps and

Important messages:

Know your family values.  If you are a single parent, know where you stand on the topic and share it with your family.  If you have a partner/spouse, talk about what your family values are for each other and for the kids regarding porn. And then share them with the kids. If you co parent in different homes and have a relationship where you can talk about it, I strongly urge that you have this talk with your co parent. Talk about safety features and ideas and statements/rules you want to jointly set for your children.

If you are against porn use 100% then explain the stance-the whys for your family and have a tone of their best interest but not setting it up for the next thing they can’t wait to do just because you forbid it.

Let the topic be a discussion even if the decision is not.

Normalizing the curiosity of porn does not mean sanctioning it.  It IS normal for kids to be curious about porn. It is very typical for a child this age to search for images and videos. Most do.  It is a fact and it is something you need to face if you are in denial. “Good kids” look at porn and a child isn’t ‘bad’ if they are interested.  This generation’s embarrassing masturbation stories aren’t as much about sticky socks or Playboy magazines under the mattress but more about your mom seeing your porn browser history and flipping out or your dad finding your vibrator in your bedside table drawer.

Further Tips:

The older they get, the more clever they get with out witting you.  Kids know how to search to hide things and how to be one step ahead of you. There are tons of sites to help them. And they are usually more comfortable with technology than we are.

Talk about the problems that can arise with porn use (what the images are teaching you, that it isn’t real sex, representative of real body types, what pleasure is or how it feels and looks, etc…)

If you want to restrict access you can do a few more things at this age:

  • Restrict deleting and adding new apps

Limit the device to one browser.

Change the Wi-Fi password frequently or only put the password in yourself.

Do not allow them to have a computer, phone, etc…in their room.

There are lots of things you can do with Wi-Fi and phones to turn off data during certain times too. Ask your providers for your options.

For the record:  Your family values dictate porn use at this age. The time we live in controls the likelihood that the majority of kids this age are exposed to it.  Personally, I feel it is important to do what you can to make it difficult for children to have access to porn in your home but the most important thing at this age is to talk about this topic.  Not all the time but more than you may think. I’ve written before that some of my best parenting conversations happen in the car. Find where it is best for your family. Own if you are uncomfortable. Don’t come from a fear perspective or you against them. The decision is not collaborative but the discussion is.  If you have a question or a point you want to make but can’t figure how to bring it up, pose it as a story you heard from a friend or on TV/news.  If something is on the news, ask their thoughts on it and give yours.  Keep a tone of openness and listen. Listen a lot. Watch your facial expressions and reactiveness.

I’ve been here numerous times and it is hard to not to react sometimes.  And when I did, I shut down the conversation immediately.

When you ‘mess up’ or say something you wish you hadn’t said, you can always go back to the topic and say it how you’d like. It is never too late.

Porn isn’t a one time conversation. Know yourself, know your values, know your kids and be an ally to your children and not their enemy.

Teenager 16-19

Story:

A teenage girl sought me out when she knew what my career focused on. It took a lot for her to start the conversation and I could see the utter devastation on her face.  She spilled out that she liked a boy and started sending him pictures of herself to try to get his attention. It started off with suggestive poses with her cleavage and when he appeared bored or wouldn’t respond quickly she started sending more explicit images. She started off with cleavage, he responded with his penis. She upped the level and he sent a few more pictures of his penis but then stopped. It felt uneven to her and that felt terrible to her.  They started chatting sexually and late at night they would jump into this fake world of them having sex with each other virtually.  She felt it was consensual but she felt like it was out of hand now. She came to me because she didn’t know how to stop something that she felt like she started.  She also was grappling with this behavior felt not aligned with her values but she didn’t know how to get a boys’ attention without  engaging sexually like this.  It was complicated and heartbreaking.

How the majority are exposed:

In the same ways you are but mainly through curiosity, ease of access and amount of discussion about it in our culture and in the media. Exposure is just shy of a guarantee. Usage is not far from that as well. How often is more variable.  Your teenager may also ebb and flow in his or her use.   A lot of kids that I talk to about porn have mixed feelings about porn similar to most adults.

Important messages:

Read my other article (Part 1 in the series) about porn use as a way to look at the questions you can either pose to your children or you can get them to ask themselves privately.

Porn use as a problem and addiction is an issue at this age.  I treated kids in college who were watching hours of porn a day and were struggling with how to find time and privacy for their addiction in dorms. I’ve spoken with high school kids who were torn up with guilt that they had gone ‘too far’ with porn sites and were chatting on line with strangers and it scared them—scared them that they couldn’t stop, scared them that they didn’t know how to make the emails stop, and scared that it had gotten so real.

Ask about porn use and educate your kids on addiction. Create an environment where your child can admit an issue or a fear that they have one. More children/teenagers have an issue than you would imagine.

For the record:

Studies aren’t conclusive yet and not enough long-term studies have been done but I am convinced we will see a rise of sexual issues in our children’s lives as they grow to be in their 30’s and 40’s. I believe we will see a rise in erectile dysfunction, problems in intimacy, dissatisfaction with sexual relationships and higher percentiles of addiction and problematic porn use. I am hoping I am incorrect or that we are able to address porn use quickly and give kids better information to make better decisions.

That said, I do not think some exposure or limited use of porn is horribly damaging to a teenager. Use and exposure is all about context, amount and ability to not use it for pleasure. I don’t think it is great but I don’t think it is catastrophic if a teenager sees or looks at porn every now and then. This won’t be a popular view to some but I don’t think it is realistic or necessary to expect or demand a zero exposure or use policy for our kids. I talk to my kids about it and I’ve tried forbidding and I’ve tried scare tactics and as they get closer to leaving their teens I find that talking about it matter-of-factly and not coming from a place of complete intolerance but realistic moderation and sound reasoning makes the biggest impact. And then I do everything I can to make it hard for them to look at it in my home. That may just be my family but with the work I do with families I have seen this mimicked with success repeatedly. This may not fit with your values.

If I could change two things about the sexual culture of teenagers and porn it would be 1) to help teenagers not associate porn use and masturbation and to make sure teenagers can masturbate and experience self pleasure without porn 2) curtail the sending and receiving of explicit pictures and sex chatting as social currency and the norm.

If you get two things from this article, I want it to be that 1) you should do the work to know your views and behaviors on porn and establish your family values and communicate them with your kids and 2) create an atmosphere with your kids that you bring up the topic and your kids know they can bring it up to you.

Share your successes and challenges with this topic with me. I love reading stories and answering questions.

Tomorrow is the final article in this 5 part series and I am jumping into the topic of how healthy or positive porn use/culture may look.

Xoxo,

Juliana