At one point in my career, I taught sex education to 4th grade girls. It was age-appropriate and very basic (think anatomy and puberty- nothing about actual sex). I was formally trained and was comfortable talking about what I consider to be an exciting part of growing up. There were always a few kids that had deeper questions and I would encourage them to go home and discuss with their parents, with the hope that most parents would be comfortable engaging in a healthy dialogue.
Today’s topic however, I’m going to guess, NO ONE is comfortable discussing. Not even a formally trained sex education teacher. But, here we go. We must. It’s our job because kids are learning about it without our help and it’s not going well.
Ughhh. I get it. I don’t want to either but it’s the big elephant in the room. If you have a child 10 and up who uses the internet, you need to at least think about it. I’m breaking it down into two sections- young kids and teens. Personally, I think the teen piece is critical because pretty much everyone is overlooking this in terms of our teenagers’ healthy sexual development.
Elizabeth Schroeder, the executive director of Answer, a national sex-education organization based at Rutgers University, said: “Your child is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.” But the most common mistake parents make, experts said, is to wait to have the conversation until some incident precipitates it.(Taken from So How Do We Talk About This? When Children See Internet Porn, NYT)
So where do you start? I think the first logical place to begin is to put some safeguards in place on laptops, ipads, and cell phones. However, you must realize that even with the best parental controls in place, your child is not completely protected. We can’t keep them in a bubble and there will come a time, whether it’s by accident or through natural curiosity, when they see explicit images they are not ready to see.
The (ongoing) Discussion
Start by letting your child know in very clear terms that if they see something online that seems inappropriate, they should tell you right away, making a point to assure them that they will not get trouble. These images often come with intense feelings of both excitement and shame and are very confusing for young kids.
If your child does come to you or you find out that they have viewed inappropriate sites (you do randomly check the history on all devices, right?!) explain that there are some things online (you tube and instagram are the biggest offenders) that kids are not meant to see. Tell them you know they are curious- stress that that is completely normal- but some of the pictures and videos online are not normal. Ask them if they have any questions and do your best to answer honestly but keep it age appropriate. Whatever you do, don’t lie. With younger kids, it’s always OK to say that this is something you’ll discuss more with them when they’re older.
The first thing you need to realize is that the pornography of today is very different than the porn of twenty years ago. Most of us can remember coming across a Playboy or maybe even a rauncher Penthouse and the images we saw. Those are not the images our teens are seeing. Todays teens can access pornorgraphy by specific category and a great deal of it is extremely degrading and often violent, with the sexual acts themselves on the outskirts of what most would consider “normal” “healthy” sexual activity.
The biggest issue, in my opinion, is that the easy access to porn is setting up our teens for unrealistic, sometimes dangerous, unhealthy sexual experiences. Research shows that some young men are shying away from real experiences because of the easy and less intimidating access to sexual expreiences online. Other times, boys are expecting their girlfriends to perform the sexual acts they see in porn (unfortunately, whether we like it or not, statistically males view porn significantly more than females). Girls, wanting to please their boyfriends, are complying and not feeling good about the experiences OR actually enjoying unusual sex acts and setting themselves up for unhealthy relationships and encounters in the future. No one is winning here.
So what do we do with our teens? We can certainly tell them our opinion on porn (remember, we as parents have way more influence than we think) but we need to leave the shame out of the conversation. Many articles actually discuss teaching our teens about “safe” sites (rules rather than prohibition), which sites to stay away from, and how to keep themselves safe online.
Regardless of your personal opinion, we MUST explain that pornography is a fantasy world and to expect what they see in porn from their real-world girlfriends and boyfriends is not OK.
Here is a sample conversation starter and some tips taken from the article, There’s Pornography On The Internet? Really? How To Talk To Your Kids from Huffpost Parents.
“I’ve noticed that you’ve been spending a lot of private time on the Internet, and it looks like from the history that you’ve visited some adult sites. I want to make sure you understand some important aspects of these sites and the risks associated with this material.”
You should then go on to stress that the computer itself becomes tagged in the cyber world once pornographic sites have been visited. Servers become “aware” of where a computer has been. That can lead to unwanted, even dangerous attention to those who use that computer.
Most importantly, let your children know that what they see online is NOT REAL. That’s the most important advice. Sexual activity is normal, but what they’re seeing is staged. It’s like reality TV, and you can use that analogy. No one really believes that reality TV isn’t to some extent scripted. Similarly, even the adult Internet sites that are meant to be “regular people” are, by definition, not engaging in regular sexual activity. That’s because they’re on camera, or worse, because they’re being unknowingly filmed. This is potentially and in many cases without question exploitative, and you can stress to your teen that sexual activity never goes well when one person exploits another.
Here are some more resources for those interested…
How To Talk To Your Kids About Porn, TIME
How To Talk To Your Teenagers About Poronography, NYT
If you’ve made it to the point of parenting where this is a concern, you already know how tough it is to raise a child. This is one of those difficult subjects but one where your guidence will surely help them wade through these murky waters.