As parents we talk to our children about their health, their media use, and making good choices. There are also those topics that many of us dread, particularly around sex, because it can be awkward to bring up or find the right words. One topic that many parents avoid altogether is pornography. This is usually a conversation that happens too late, after children have been exposed to it, and chances are if yours have access to the Internet, they have been exposed to it. This was confirmed by a new report released by Common Sense Media that found the majority of teens have watched pornography online — and some have seen it by age 10 or younger. For some it was accidental, something they stumbled upon; however, many teens said they were viewing online pornography intentionally on a regular basis. Yikes! This has an impact on how they view sex and relationships, so if you haven’t already had that conversation, now is the time. Here are some tips to make it a little less awkward:
Obviously how you talk to your teen about this topic will be different than how you talk to a younger child. For younger children, the goal is to let them know what it is and what to do if they see it.
It can be as simple as saying, “there are pictures and videos on the Internet of naked people that are meant only for adults.” They should also know that if they see these pictures or videos that they should close or turn off the device and tell a parent or caregiver. If they do come to you, it is important to stay calm and not freak out, which can be difficult. Ask them questions about how they found it, ask them if they have questions about what they saw, and most important, don’t make them feel bad or punish them. It is important to build trust and open lines of communications around these topics, and you don’t want them to be fearful coming to you in the future.
For teens, this is not a conversation they want to have with you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it. They will be awkward, anxious, and embarrassed, so keep it short and plan what to say. I have found a good time for these conversations is in the car, so they don’t need to make eye contact. I also highly recommend Common Sense Media’s scripts for mini conversations on this topic. The scripts address a concern and give you an idea of what to say and what to ask to address that concern. The concerns range from consent, sex education, addiction, and body image.
It is also important the conversation is respectful with open lines of communication. Likely this is a very different conversation than our parents had with us — if they even had it. The Internet has made access to information and sexually explicit photos and videos part of our everyday lives, which is a lot for us to manage let alone our kids.
While it might feel like a forgone conclusion your child will be exposed to pornography, there are things we can do to try to keep our children as safe online as possible. Some of these include setting up parental controls about when they can be online, what sites they can access, and setting up content filters to block apps with inappropriate content. It is important to do this on all devices they have access to — game consoles, phones, tablets, and laptops — including their school devices. I also recommend checking often to make sure these restrictions are still in place and don’t need to be updated.
For teens it can be harder to put these same restrictions in place because as they get older it is natural that they want more freedom online. The research shows they don’t need to go to the popular sites to find it, they are being exposed to pornography on Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat — three of the most popular social media platforms for teens. While these sites are trying to combat sexually suggestive content, most are user-generated, which is difficult to monitor.
As parents we can’t count on the technology to protect our kids; we need to talk to them about what they are being exposed to online. These conversations can’t be a “one and done,” either. They are more effective as a series of short conversations that are revisited as they get older and have new questions or concerns.
Liz Farrell is the mother of three children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive conversations around social media and technology. Email: [email protected]