Exposure to pornography can happen to any child, whether they are looking for it or not. To think that ‘it won’t happen to my child’ leaves your child vulnerable to stumbling upon sexually explicit material that they may not be ready for.
This blog post isn’t about kids who deliberately seek sexually explicit material. That is a different issue. This post is about what parents can do to protect their child from unwanted sexual material ie where a child has stumbled upon it accidentally or was deliberately shown it by someone.
If your child has already been exposed to pornography, you need to know that it isn’t a reflection on your parenting or on your child. Today, it is actually harder for kids to avoid online pornography than it is to find it.
It is our responsibility as parents to protect our children to the best of our ability. For today’s child, this mean preparing our children for when (not if) they stumble across pornography.
But first, about this post.
This post is a long one (sorry) but it has been organised so that you can quickly find the parts that interest you. The information is something that all parents need to be aware of. As well as talking to your kids about other risks like drugs and unsafe sex, you also need to talk to them about online pornography. It is a confronting subject, but it is a subject that the modern day parent needs to be aware of, as the possibility of your child viewing pornography before becoming an adult, is extremely high.
Why is pornography such a problem?
Pornography is a problem for a number of reasons.
First, something that used to be difficult to access is now only one mouse click away. With kids today spending more time online than ever before, the risk of exposure to sexually explicit material is much greater.
Second, pornography has changed from the stuff that we would have seen when we were kids. Today the content that kids are accessing is far more graphic, violent, deviant and destructive than anything ever seen before. A child with unrestricted internet access can instantly access material that ranges from soft-core (the type of images found in Playboy) to hard-core (material depicting graphic sex acts, live sex show, orgies, bestiality, and violence).
Third, young children are not emotionally or mentally prepared to deal with sexually explicit material. Viewing highly sexualised or violent material has many risks for a child whose brain is still developing.
Fourth, it is natural for kids of all ages, to be as curious about sex, as they are about other things – like why is the sky blue. In our childhood, we looked for information about sex in an encyclopedia. For kids today, finding information about sex is much easier, as they can just go to the internet, and ‘google’ it. ‘Sex’ and ‘porn’ were the fourth and fifth most popular search terms used by children on the internet.
How many kids are looking at porn?
We don’t have exact figures on how many kids have viewed sexually explicit material, but we do know that the older your child, the more likely it is that they will see it.
Current figures suggest that somewhere between 14% (of 9 to 16 year olds) to 25% (of 8 to 17 year olds) have viewed online porn. Australian research suggests that by the time your child turns 18, that 62% of girls and 93% of boys will have seen online porn.
Is porn harmful?
Despite the fact that we know most children will see pornography before adulthood, we still don’t have enough evidence to say if pornography is harmful to children.
However, we do know that adolescents who have viewed sexually explicit material are at greater risk of developing:
- Unrealistic attitudes about sex and relationships
- Inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality
- Preoccupation with sex
- Sexually permissive attitudes
- Positive attitudes about casual and recreational sex
- Belief in traditional gender roles; including views of women as sex objects
- Increased sexual behaviours, such as oral sex, group sex, anal sex, and using drugs and alcohol during sex (some researchers disagree with this)
- Insecurities about body image in females
- Insecurities about sexual performance in males
- Sexual harassment (there is no link to sexual aggression for the majority of males)
- Misbehaviour at school
- Social maladjustment
- Symptoms of depression
But what about in young children who have not yet reached puberty?
Again there is no evidence of long-term harm from exposure to sexually explicit material. Some research suggests that between 12% to 38% of children aged 9-16 years, are bothered or upset by finding sexual material online.
It has been suggested that problematic child sexual behaviour can be caused by viewing pornography but again, some researchers dispute this, saying that pornography is just an association with the behaviour and not the cause.
Despite the evidence, professional organisations are beginning to speak out against pornography and increasing public concern has pressured governments in the UK to implement internet control and in Australia to investigate possible measures.
So, is pornography harmful or not?
To date, research suggests that pornography isn’t harmful to children, but it is too soon to tell. The ethical restraints of research in children, means that it is difficult to measure the effect of pornography on children. There are still so many unanswered questions and we just don’t know enough to confidently say that it isn’t harmful.
Wait. But isn’t porn supposed to be addictive?
Despite a growing body of research that is looking into the impact of porn on the brain, we still don’t know if porn is addictive or not. There is some new research that suggests that viewing porn can create a high similar to what those with drug and alcohol problems may experience but the researchers say that it is too soon to say if this means that porn is addictive.
Some argue that porn is addictive because of the neurochemical release of dopamine that happens in the brain while viewing it. Dopamine is the switch for ‘wanting more’, so the assumption is made that when a child sees porn, that the child’s brain will begin to release large amounts of dopamine, turning on the switch for that child to then want to see more porn.
Either way, it is clear that pornography hurts some people, whether it is addictive or not.
If you want to understand more about addiction, Karen Young describes how to explain addiction to a teen.
How are kids finding it?
Kids are exposed to pornography either accidentally (where a child has stumbled upon it accidentally or was deliberately shown it by someone) or deliberately (by actively seeking sexually explicit material).
Younger children who have not yet reached puberty, are more likely to find pornography accidentally than to deliberately seek it. If they are seeking it, it is more likely to be due to a curiosity about sex than because they have already been exposed to sexually explicit material.
They are likely to find this material themselves through pop-ups, on video and photo sharing apps, on social networks, through instant messaging, in video games, in cartoons, clicking on innocent looking links, or misspelling a word. Or they may be shown it by a giggling friend.
When to start talking.
When do we start talking? A lot sooner than most parents are comfortable with.
Basically, as soon as your child is able to use a search engine, or is watching videos on YouTube, there is a good chance that they will stumble across porn. Which means that you need to start talking age-appropriately to kids from as young as five or six. (And yes, you can talk age appropriately to a five a year old without scarring them (or you) for life.)
Even if you are a technology free household or restrict your child’s access to the internet, your child is still at risk as they may still stumble across sexually explicit material outside the family home.
Kids and porn – know the signs.
There are a few warning signs that may signal that your child has been accessing sexually explicit material:
- Find evidence of pornography in your browser history (older kids will be smarter and may delete any history).
- Discover that the browser history has been cleared on the family computer.
- You notice an increase in pop-ups, spam messages, viruses or other inappropriate content on the family computer.
- Unexplained charges on your credit card, mobile, tv or internet service bill.
- Your child lies about their computer use.
- Your child is spending large amounts of time online, especially at night.
- Your child locks the door when on the computer in their bedroom.
- Your child quickly changes the monitor screen, hiding what they were looking at, when you enter the room.
- An unusual curiosity about sexuality.
- You overhear your child talking about sexually explicit material.
- Your child talks about women and/or sex in a disrespectful, physical and highly sexualised way.
- Your child starts displaying inappropriate sexual behaviour.
- Your child appears depressed and withdraws from everyday family life.
My child has already seen porn. What now?
Sometimes we go to start our first conversation about pornography with our child, to discover that we are too late and that our child has already viewed it. For kids today, the reality is that it is harder to avoid pornography than to find it.
If your child has already stumbled across pornographic material, it is important to stay calm. Let them know that you aren’t angry with them, and reassure them that you are glad that they have told you, so that you can help them to make sense of what they saw.
Ask them how they came across it, what they saw, and how it made them feel. It is important to not embarrass or shame them during the conversation.
If they were shown it by a friend, let them explain what happened, talk about how it made them feel and how they can respond if it happens again.
If they went looking for it, let them explain why they went looking for the material, talk about how it made them feel and discuss better ways for them to find out about sexuality in the future.
If your child has been viewing pornography frequently, you may be wondering if you need to seek professional help. This is a difficult question to answer as it depends on the severity of the material that the child was viewing: were the images limited to just body parts or did it include graphic sexual acts, violence or animals? Has the child acted out in a way that is sexually inappropriate or acted out what they saw with another child?
If your child is clearly traumatised by the material viewed, regularly views pornography, or later ‘acts out’ sexually with against another child, then you will want to consider seeking the help of a health professional with expertise in the area of pornography. True Relationships & Reproductive Health have created an app, The Traffic Lights®, that can help with identifying and managing sexual behaviours in children and adolescents.
If your child is viewing pornographic material frequently, you may be wondering if your child has an addiction. Sometimes it can be hard to determine the difference between a habit of watching porn and an addiction where you try to stop but just can’t. Whichever it is, there are some things that you can do as a parent to help your child. And keep in the back of your mind, that sometimes viewing pornography is a sign that something else is going on. Sometimes kids become sexualised before they are ready, and seek our pornography because of this.
Children and Pornography – How to protect your child.
When we look at protecting kids from pornography, it depends on what you mean by protection.
Are you talking about preventing your child from deliberately looking for pornography? Or are you looking at protecting your child from accidentally stumbling upon pornography? Or are you looking at teaching your child about what to do when they do find it?
As you can see, it isn’t as simple as just installing some internet filters and leaving it at that. We need a range of strategies if we want to keep our kids safe from the harmful effects of pornography.
As a parent, we need to think of porn as we would think of any other risk that our kids face. Not all kids use drugs, drink alcohol and have an unwanted pregnancy. The reason that they don’t is usually because they have been empowered with knowledge and have made an informed decision.
Here are some suggestions on what you can do to empower your own child!
Warn your child.
You need to warn your child by telling them what pornography is and why it is bad.
Warn your child that they may find private pictures or movies of adults doing private things together, they may be naked and it may look like they are hurting each other. We call it porn or pornography. And it isn’t good for kids to see – it is a grown up thing.
Just remember that the younger the child, the less detail they require. As your child grows older , you can start to add in more details. Sometimes finding the right words to use is challenging, and age-appropriate scripts can come in handy.
Try reading your child a book like ‘Hayden-Reece learns what to do if children see pornography’ by Holly-ann Martin from Safe 4 Kids (due to be published in August 2016), ‘The Internet is Like a Puddle’ by Shona Innes, or ‘Good Pictures Bad Pictures’ by Kristen A. Jenson. For tweens, the book ‘The Secret Business of Relationships, Love and Sex’ by Heather Anderson, Fay Angelo and Rose Stewart, has a section towards the back that talks about porn.
Books can help when trying to start a difficult conversation. You can read the book, and then refer back to it later on.
Where images can be found.
Tell your child that they may accidentally find these images or videos on the computer, their tablets, cartoons, video games, YouTube, phones and even books or magazines.
What kids should do when they find images.
That if they stumble across these images, that they need to turn it off or turn away and to talk to a parent or trusted adult immediately. Reassure them that they won’t get into trouble.
You can delay exposure for younger children by using software filters or child-friendly apps (like YouTube Kids) or blocking popups. Just remember though, that you can’t use this as your only strategy, as your child may still stumble across images in other ways eg through friends and unfiltered computers.
This strategy isn’t as effective for older children and teens, as they usually work out how to get around parental controls in the home and will have internet access outside of the home. If you have a child who is regularly watching porn, you may want to consider filtering software as well as monitoring software on all internet-enabled devices (computer, tablets, phones, iPods etc).
Responsible online behaviour
Parents need to be very clear and upfront in regards to defining the family rules about online use.
>> The computer should ideally be kept in the main living area, with the screen positioned so that it is easily visible.
>> Devices should also be kept out of bedrooms.
>> Limit and monitor your child’s time on the computer.
>> Become more computer savvy – get your kids to show you how a new game or site works.
>> No chatrooms – if used to only be public chatrooms and message boards on kid sites that you have approved.
>> Establish clear online rules (here is an example of a family contract for online safety).
How to keep the conversation going.
Talking to your kids about pornography is a conversation that you need to keep having – a once off chat isn’t enough. Like most things, you can’t cover everything that your child needs to know in one conversation. They will either forget about it or may not fully understand what you have said.
There are a number of ways that you can keep the porn conversation going. Not all kids will ask you questions, so it is important to find ways to initiate conversations without it feeling like a lecture – most kids will stop listening if it turns into a lecture!
Repeat the conversation.
You can’t possibly cover everything that your child needs to know about pornography in one big talk (even if you think you have covered everything). It is about lots of small, frequent conversations over a long period of time. Remember it shouldn’t be a lecture or your child will instantly stop listening!
Keep it simple.
You need to use simple straightforward language when talking to kids about pornography. Clear language at a level that is age appropriate helps your child avoid misunderstanding and confusion.
Answer their questions.
If they are old enough to ask a question, they are old enough to know the answer. Be honest and if you don’t know the answer, tell them that you will get back to them with the answer (and make sure that you do).
Try asking your child what they think before you answer a question. This way you can regain your composure, discover what they already know and work out what exactly it is that they are wanting to know.
Watch out for teachable moments.
Start looking for everyday moments that you can turn into an opportunity to talk to your child about pornography. Once you start looking you can find many opportunities to talk in a way that feels more casual. For example:
>> You may both be watching a show on TV, and you hear a reference to pornography in it.
>> You are both driving somewhere and you pass a billboard with a scantily clad woman on it.
>> You notice your child clicking out of websites when you walk past the computer.
>> You hear a story from another parent about how big a problem sexting has become at your child’s school.
These are all opportunities that you can use to start a conversation about pornography.
Plan a conversation.
Sometimes, it can be easier to talk about a tough topic when you plan ahead for it. Work out what information or facts that you want to share and how you plan to start the conversation. Having the words can help you feel more confident, be clearer and quicker!
The first conversation that you have with your child about pornography will be the hardest.
The hardest part is knowing what words to use. To make life much easier for Hey Sigmund readers, you can download my age appropriate scripts about pornography that will help you to start talking with your kids about sex.
And I will share one last tip that made my first talk to my kids about porn much easier – write the words (that you want to say) on a post-it note that you can refer to during the chat. It won’t feel as clumsy and you won’t have to stress about whether you are saying it right!
Best of luck, and hey… if you can talk to your kids about pornography, then I think that you can pretty much talk to them about anything!
About the Author: Cath Hakanson
Cath Hakanson is a mother, nurse, sex educator and founder of Sex Ed Rescue. Bringing her 20+ years clinical knowledge, a practical down-to-earth approach, and passion for helping families, Cath inspires parents to talk to their kids about sex so that kids can talk to their parents about anything! Sex Ed Rescue arms parents with the tools, advice and tips to make sex education a normal part of everyday life.
Get your age appropriate scripts about pornography that will help you start talking to your kids about porn.