How to Talk to Your Kid about Porn and When to Have This Important Conversation

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Yes, you read that right, even though it may feel strange (and scary?). Discussing pornography with your child is something that you probably wish could just happen without having to live through it, like having your taxes magically filed each year without actually having to collect receipts and complete forms. You may even not know where to begin when you consider how to talk to your kid about porn.

And that’s OK—we understand that it’s awkward. Many parents feel uncomfortable using anatomically correct body part names in front of their soon-to-be developing child during “the sex talk,” let alone discussing pornography. 

But consider this: If you don’t have conversations like this with your child, their entire understanding of could be defined by peers and the Internet…and isn’t that even more terrifying than an awkward conversation? And we’re here to help you figure out how to talk to your kid about porn, hopefully, making it a little easier to approach.

It may not be perfect, and that’s OK.

Art Bamford, co-author of two books on digital parenting (Right Click and Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World) and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, talks about how important that conversation can be. While doing research, he discovered that those whose parents talked to them about pornography were less likely to view it, without discovering research about the specifics of that conversation. Nonetheless, their parents said something. As a parent, it’s OK if you fumble through these awkward chats.

Don’t let the stress of orchestrating the perfect conversation stop you from discussing the difficult topic and figuring out how to talk to your kid about porn. It will, indeed, make a difference.

The good news…and the bad news

Most kids don’t wake up one day and seek out porn just because. 50% for those ages 11-13, 65% for those ages 14-15, and 78% for those ages 16-17 accidentally stumble upon it while searching for something unrelated, might be shown a site by someone they know, anonymously sent a link, or discover it when searching out answers to healthy questions about their bodies and sexuality.

Similar to other conversations about sex and body parts, how you talk about porn will be shaped by your child’s age and maturity. You would talk about and answer the questions of a 6-year-old very differently than the questions of a 13-year-old, and the same is true for pornography.

Start by talking about porn without saying the word.

Talking about pornography begins when you talk about private parts with young children, including talking about them with the proper names, according to Stephanie Diehl of Hope Rising Coaching and Consulting, an organization aiming to equip, encourage and educate parents as they navigate topics such as technology, sex, pornography, and other challenges.

With young children, it’s OK not to define the word pornography. Children can understand the concept of private parts. Those parts are not bad, but they are private and off-limits to touching, sharing, or seeing.

That goes for other people, too. If someone tries to show them their private parts, whether it’s a grownup or another child, it’s not OK. Talk with your child about how this applies to pictures, too. And if a child ever sees a picture of someone else’s private parts, they should tell a trusted adult immediately. If they have questions, they should talk to their parents; questions are always encouraged and normal.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds by Kristen A. Jenson, is a picture book that you can read to young children to explain this concept. It has a simple model for how children should respond if they see something inappropriate: Turn, Run, Tell. Turn away from what you see, run to find a trusted adult, and tell them what you saw.

When do you start using the word?

It’s difficult to know exactly when or where a child will be first exposed to pornography. There are several studies, however, that indicate it can be as early as 8 years old and generally by age 11. As a parent, you know when your child is ready to hear about “the birds and the bees.” The same is true for talking about pornography. When your child is old enough to learn about sex, you may consider preparing them for the chance that they may be exposed to pornography.

When going over the biology of sex, talk with your child about what you believe about sex in relationships, as well, such as why and when it is appropriate. As a parent, you may provide wisdom on how to make sense of hormones and guidance about the proper place of sex. Sharing what you value as a family and what informs your view is always helpful. As this conversation unfolds, it is appropriate to use and define the word pornography.

Where and when are important to consider when you think through how to talk to your kid about porn.

When you are planning to have any sort of important conversation, preparing well means preparing yourself and the environment.

Think through when and where would be good to have a one-on-one talk with your child. You know them well. Are they more likely to open up and talk freely while on a walk or do they let their guard down at night when it’s quiet and devices are turned off? Do you have a large family and need to create a space away from home without siblings interrupting? Choose a time and place that will help shape the tone.

It can be one-on-one or with both parents, and that, too, depends on the nature of your family and your relationships. Consider who may have “the sex talk” with that particular child and recreate that environment or talk about pornography at the same time. There is no right answer to this—you know your child and your family best.

How do you explain it?

The Internet has changed the world, and pornography is now a click away from your child’s eyes on any device.

Given this unfortunate fact, it has become necessary to talk about pornography. Articulating how sex works and for what it is intended also means explaining how it can be unhealthy and problematic in certain contexts.

As children learn about pornography, they may want to understand why it exists and the controversy that surrounds it. Seasoned counselor Stephanie Diehl advises that parents describe pornography like a drug. Similar to many narcotics, pornography releases chemicals that stimulate the brain. This fleeting ‘high’ carries real costs, as repeat exposure can rewire the brain, result in addiction, and cause some unhealthy physiological changes.

When discussing this topic, you might explain that much of what appears is unrealistic, coerced, and highly edited. In other words, it does not provide a healthy or accurate portrayal of sex, relationships, or intimacy. It may be helpful to reference the prevailing views about the harmful effects of pornography among experts in medicine, neuroscience, psychology, and public health. This should not be shared to scare your child but rather to educate them that repeat viewing can have very real consequences.

Please note that as children mature, the conversation will mature. They’ll have more questions as they get older, and you want to start a conversation when they are younger so they know they can always bring any questions to you.

At this point, your child will likely be embarrassed. Talking about this with their mom or dad may feel strange (remember “the sex talk” with your own parents and how you felt). Also, if they have never heard this before, they might not even believe that someone would do something like that, especially not themselves or anyone they know. This response is normal. You want them to be prepared for some bad stuff out there so they know what to do when they see it.

Let them know they won’t be in trouble.

Children of all ages, tweens and teenagers included, need to know that if they are exposed to porn, they won’t get in trouble.

It likely will be seen by accident or shown to them by a friend, and they need to know that you won’t be upset with them for telling you about it or asking questions.

Diehl talked about how while as a counselor, she would ask older elementary-aged children if they had seen pictures of people’s private parts, and when they said yes, it was often in ads that popped up while playing games. Children talked about how they didn’t want to tell a parent because they didn’t want to lose the game or get in trouble for seeing it. They knew something they had seen was wrong, but they were afraid that there would be a consequence.

Questions?

If your child has questions, be as honest as appropriately possible. They may have no questions at that moment, so consider setting up a time for you to talk again in about a week and for them to think of any questions until then. Every once in a while, ask them if they have seen something that they weren’t sure if they should see or if they have any questions about anything they saw on any screen, particularly one not in your home. Just like you might be learning how to talk to your kid about porn, they might be learning how to talk to their parents about it, too.

When there’s an ad that pops up or a television show commercial for something you would never let them watch, take a second to acknowledge that it happened and ask why you think what you just saw was inappropriate. The goal is to create an environment where you can talk about sexual issues and questions without shame.

Other resources Canopy recommends

We know that this is a difficult conversation and that you may not know exactly how to talk to your kid about porn. You’d like to protect your child from all the bad things in the world forever, if it were healthy and appropriate.

Preparing your children to navigate the digital world on their own is part of digitally parenting wisely.

There are several other resources we recommend that might be helpful for you and your family:

We can also help

Digitally parenting includes talking about pornography with your child it is out there in the world, especially the online world.

Canopy was launched with hopes of preemptively preventing children from being exposed to such explicit content and to partner with parents in protecting those they love most.

Begin by starting your free trial of Canopy today to protect the devices your children use. Together, we are building a supportive network of experts and families who are driven by a common care and a shared vision for a better Internet. Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll start sharing helpful tips, insightful stories, and expert resources.

 

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