Time To Talk About It

How To Talk To Your Kids About Porn (Because Yes, You Have To)

Kids have access to hypersexualized imagery from a very young age and the way you help them frame what they're seeing can make all the difference.

Written by Meg St-Esprit

Most adults remember the first time they sought out sexual images. Whether it was paging through the Playboy magazine they found tucked under a parent’s mattress or furtively looking through a human biology textbook at the library, kids have to start somewhere in their quest to figure out what sex looks like. That curiosity is healthy and normal. But when today’s kids seek to satisfy the same curiosity, they have search engines and an entire World Wide Web at their disposal. Yes, that means porn — explicit and plentiful. Despite the wide range of internet safety tools available to parents and schools today, kids see pornographic images earlier than many parents think. By age 12, most kids have inadvertently seen pornography — and quite a few 9-year-olds have as well. By 14, the data tells us that kids have purposely sought it out.

What they have seen, though, is likely to be so much more graphic and violent than anything kids could stumble across even a generation ago. Parents are now navigating a world where problematic pornography is nearly impossible to avoid. Parenting tweens and teens in today’s world of endless digital access can feel like being stuck on a train without any brakes — and today’s parents are the first generation to navigate this, so we’re not sure what the long-term consequences will be.

Camilla Guiterrez found herself unexpectedly thrust into a parenting minefield when her son was about 11. (Guiterrez is a pseudonym chosen to protect the family’s anonymity.) Before she had ever broached the subject of sex with him, he had seen violent videos containing incest and huge age gaps between partners. Guiterrez and her husband threw up every internet blocker they could find, but it was too late. “We told our kids that when you see something on a screen it is burned in your head,” she says. “That is why if they see something they shouldn't, they should immediately shut down the screen and tell an adult.”

Her son did not do that and developed a porn addiction. “He couldn’t keep his hands off it,” she says. Through lots of monitoring and ongoing conversations, by 17 he has a healthier understanding of the dangers of porn. The family’s internet monitoring software let Guiterrez know he recently searched “making love,” a shift from the type of content he was originally seeking.

The truth about porn on the internet

“This is a public health crisis,” says Gail Dines, founder of Culture Reframed, an organization that provides resources to parents to help them navigate the hypersexualized images that bombard today’s kids. The sociologist and her team have spent decades researching the effect of pornography on children. She’s been investigating the topic since magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler were among the only options. In 2000, three key factors changed with the explosion of the internet: Porn became affordable, anonymous, and accessible. Anyone with a computer and an inkling of curiosity could find pornography. “Asking a parent to stop the kid from looking at porn is like asking a parent to stop their kid from breathing polluted air,” she says.

The biggest shift Dines has seen, though, is in the actual content. Gone are the somewhat vanilla sexual images of those iconic print magazines. “[On the internet] it was immediately hardcore. The softcore disappeared. And the average kid putting ‘boobies’ into a search engine is being catapulted into Pornhub.” What the child is expecting to see is perhaps a pair of breasts. Instead, the child is immediately confronted with the type of graphic and often violent images that used to be hard to access. At a stage of development where kids are rapidly building neural pathways and figuring out how to navigate the world, this type of exposure to today’s porn is akin to actual trauma.

Dines says kids are confused by what they see. “Yeah, he is aroused and masturbating to it. So he thinks this is what he wants — the actors even say things like ‘We know what you want.’” During a critical period of development, exposure to violent sexual imagery can rewire the brain to need that violence for pleasure. They’re too young to know it’s not real, but it's what is thrust in their face. Finding a Playboy under a mattress would be a welcome alternative.

While boys are more likely to seek out sexual images, girls do it too; increasingly, says Dines, they might also try to emulate something a male partner has wanted or requested. And exposure to violent porn is linked to a sharp increase in teen dating violence. The grim truth is that there is no amount of exposure to today’s porn that is safe or developmentally appropriate for kids. In this grim new reality, where should parents even begin with their children?

How to talk to kids about porn

Given all this information, talking to your kids about porn is imperative. But how soon is too soon to bring up the subject with kids? What if porn wasn’t even on their radar but by bringing it up, you spark your kids’ curiosity? When it is time to discuss the subject, what is the best way to handle such an awkward topic? Thankfully, there are a host of tips and tricks to make these uncomfortable conversations just a bit less terrifying.

At what age do kids start watching porn?

“Parents should not hedge on talking to their kids about porn at a young age,” says Michelle Icard. A middle school educator with decades of experience in the tween-teen world, she’s the author of a resource for parents called Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen. It’s about how to have healthy, reciprocal conversations with your kids. “As soon as your child is using a device without direct parent supervision, it's time to bring up the topic.” While statistics vary around the age children actively search for porn, for many families Icard says this conversation can begin as early as fourth or fifth grade.

What should the talk about porn look like?

The best spot to talk about anything uncomfortable is while doing something alongside each other. There’s no direct eye contact while riding in the car or making dinner side by side, so a conversation feels less threatening. Prepare yourself to do most of the talking: This convo often is (and should be) pretty one-sided, says Icard.

The porn conversation is not one of those reciprocal conversations; you’re imparting information they need. “To begin, you might start by saying ‘I know this is weird to talk about, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't bring it up.’ Promise to keep it short, under two minutes, and stick to your word. No need to ask your child what they've seen or wondered about.”

Being curious about sex is normal, says Icard. It’s important to communicate that message so they don’t feel shame. It’s also important to mention in that first conversation that if they did feel aroused by porn, that doesn't mean they are a bad person. It’s designed to make people feel aroused — but it's a performance and is not the same as sex between real consenting adults. “Just the way Marvel movies are not representative of real life, pornography is a fantasy, not a reality. If you watch a Marvel movie and expect to fly after, you're going to be disappointed, and you might get hurt,” she says “People who watch pornography should not expect real sex to be the same as what they've seen online. Mistaking fantasy for reality can be dangerous.”

What should parents say during the porn conversation?

Icard teaches parents to tell their kids that porn can ruin real sex for them because the real thing won’t match up with what they’ve seen. And you want the real thing to be great for them — when they’re ready for it. Kids will be really uncomfortable with their adults saying they want them to enjoy sex someday, so that’s why it's important to make these talks short and sweet. Icard says to cut it off, leave the door open, and give them an out. Try something like: "Thanks for listening. I know it's strange to talk about but it's important. If you have questions, you can ask me anytime and I won't be weird about it. Now we're done. Alright! I have to go get dinner ready."

Dines and her team have developed some scripts, family contracts, and sex education that are free to parents. They’ve also created acronyms to help caregivers remember how to respond when the subject comes up unexpectedly, and offer videos and training modules broken down by age that are the most useful to parents before their child ever sees porn. This is a conversation that it’s best to prepare for long before it’s ever an issue.

What about just blocking porn on the internet in your home?

Technology is advancing every day, with more tools and apps available for parents to limit parts of the internet and track what kids are seeing. So, what if parents just make sure their kids can’t Google “boobs”?

It is absolutely critical to have adequate internet safety tools on your home internet and mobile devices. There are a variety of phones designed just for kids that block sexual imagery. There are also some really effective home internet blockers like Bark, Microsoft Family, Aura, and Canopy that will definitely block any pornographic or otherwise inappropriate search results, as well as send parents an alert if their child Googled anything on a list of flagged topics.

Parents need to be extremely careful, though, that these tools don’t give them a false sense of security. “Kids are going to see it,” says Dines. “They can’t not see it.” Whether it’s on a friend’s device without monitoring or searching violent sexual comics that aren’t flagged as actual porn, or a myriad of other avenues, they will see porn. The broader conversation about the dangers of violent sexual imagery and porn needs to occur no matter how sophisticated the tracking software. Perhaps just as important is letting your kids know it’s safe to ask questions about tough subjects. “If your tween has seen porn and they were aroused, but then you tell them porn is wrong, or gross, or immoral, you might cause them to feel shame about sexual feelings,” says Icard. When kids know they can ask their caregivers questions about even the most “cringe” topics, it strengthens the parent-child relationship.

If a child was blocked from seeing any sexual imagery until age 18, they will still eventually have to navigate this minefield. An adult brain is less malleable, and thus less affected by the images, but still affected. That’s why having a conversation about porn is unavoidable — and probably needs to occur much sooner than many parents ever imagined.

Experts:

Gail Dines, Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women's Studies at Wheelock College in Boston and founder and president of Culture Reframed

Michelle Icard, author and educator