As parents, we all have concerns about how much screen time our children are getting. But even more worrisome is what our children can potentially come across on those screens. As a growing number of kids start using smart phones and iPads at increasingly younger ages, there’s mounting concern about where their Google searches will take them. A few keystrokes or an accidentally misspelled word, and a child can land on a highly explicit website.
About 93.2 percent of boys and 62.1 percent of girls have viewed online porn before the age of 18, according to Enough Is Enough, an organization dedicated to making the Internet safer for children. The mean age of first exposure to Internet porn is 14.8 for girls and 14.3 for boys. But studies show that children as young as age 8, 9 or 10 are coming across pornography through online searches about sex or from older siblings.
“Never before in the history of telecommunications media in the United States has so much indecent (and obscene) material been so easily accessible,” the Department of Justice has stated.
A survey published by Enough Is Enough found that:
- Almost half (46%) of teens said “sending sexual or naked photos or videos is part of everyday life for teenagers nowadays.”
- Seven out of 10 (72%) of 18-year-olds say “pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes towards sex” and that “pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships.”
- Two-thirds of young women (66%) and almost half of young men (49%) agree “it would be easier to grow up if pornography was less easy to access…”
In 2012, Tru Research found that 71% of teens have tried to hide what they do online from parents. This includes clearing browser histories, deleting inappropriate videos, using a phone instead of a computer, using private browsing, disabling parent controls, or having secret email and social media accounts.
So when preventative measures fail, and a parent discovers their child has been watching porn, what is the best way to handle it? First, parents should understand that it is natural and normal for children to explore sexuality and to be curious about it. Kids will most likely come across porn at some point before age 18, and they should not be made to feel ashamed.
A warm and communicative parent-child relationship is one of the most important ways to reduce porn usage among children, say mental health experts. Open parent-child channels for discussing sex education, the influence of the media and Internet, and parental participation with children online help, too. Parents might consider giving kids a clinical reference book on sexuality that outlines sexual terms and includes drawings of body parts.
But when pornography is involved, parents also need to set firm boundaries, and explain that the viewing of adult videos by children is inappropriate and not allowed, says Stephen Duclos, a certified sex therapist, family therapist, and mental health counselor. He points out that this explanation should clearly distinguish between sex as a positive part of adult lives, and the viewing of pornography as not age appropriate. Explain that pornography is acting.
Children under age of 14 are particularly vulnerable and finding porn can be very unsettling for them. “Unlike teens who have some idea what porn is, younger kids are often blindsided by it. They’re often fascinated, repulsed, aroused, and ashamed all at the same time — a mix that can easily lead to addiction in a young, developing brain,” says Jill Whitney LMFT, who has a blog called KeepTheTalkGoing.com.
She conducted a survey of 900 young adults, many of whom had run across porn at a young age. For them, she says, porn was viewed as a negative experience — upsetting at best, and at worst the source of a long-term addiction. Those who had the best outcomes were the children who felt comfortable quickly telling a parent about what they’d found. Those who had the worst experiences typically were afraid or ashamed to tell their parents.
Parents can never be 100 percent certain that children won’t come across porn, but there are ways to reduce the risk. Be sure to have a conversation when a child first starts using a computer or device about inappropriate websites. Then closely monitor online use and peruse the web with your child to steer them toward kid-friendly sites. According to Whitney, a parent can also:
- Use filters. Older kids can often figure out how to get around filters, but younger ones often can’t. Even with very tech-savvy 10-year-olds, filters help, because kids that age aren’t looking for porn, they’re finding it by accident. If you make it harder to find, they’re less likely to run across it.
- Warn kids. Explain to kids that there are all kinds of things online that are untrue, gross, and/or uncomfortable. Many things aren’t suitable for kids, and many sites have things most adults don’t like. Tell your children they might see things they don’t want to see, so you’d really rather they asked you about any questions they might have. If you don’t know the answer, you can research it together.
- Show them safe sites for information. Teach kids that some sites are more reliable than others. Sites that end in .edu or .org are better than ones that end in .com or, worst, .xxx. Go online with your child to show them the safer, more kid-friendly sites. Bookmark them so your children can easily find them later.
- Encourage kids to tell you if they see something that makes them uncomfortable. If they do stumble on something that seems freaky, make sure they can talk to you about it and you won’t be mad.
- Keep an old-fashioned, paper medical reference book on sexuality in the house. Show kids how to use it if they are curious about sexuality. A reference book is excellent for defining terms and providing overview information. The line drawings of body parts are scientific, not salacious. Most important, books don’t link through to any other, possibly inappropriate, sites.
- Most important: Be a resource. If you’ve already told your kids about the birds and the bees, they won’t have to Google sexual terms — they can come to you. As awkward as those conversations are, they give your child accurate information about sexuality without risking unfortunate consequences. Plus, being open to talking about sex establishes you as someone your child can turn about important but sensitive topics. That’ll have major benefits as your child grows into an adult.
What have you found to be most helpful in protecting your children from pornography?
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