Prepare thyself: One day, your kid will watch porn

Parents

I thought I was ahead of the game when I installed parental controls on my son’s tablet at the tender age of seven. But one day about a year later, when the controls had accidentally been switched off, I found this in his search history: “looking at girls without there tops on.”

He hadn’t made it past the tiny images in the search results, but he’d broken a rule against internet use without an adult, so I knew I had to set a consequence around his tablet privileges. At the same time, I didn’t want to associate a feeling of shame around his very natural curiosities about sex and the human body. And yet, the internet is a scary place, so what now? Hide old copies of Playboy around the house and let him satisfy his curiosity the old-fashioned way?

Porn is a tricky topic for parents. Clearly, an eight-year-old is way too young for it. But it’s never too early, it turns out, to have conversations that can protect them from the worst aspects of porn down the road.

What’s so scary about porn, anyway?

Again, eight-year-olds obviously shouldn’t be exposed to sexually explicit pictures or videos. But what is it, exactly, that freaks most parents out about the idea of their kids watching porn even as teenagers? Some worry it will lead to their kid having sex earlier than they might have, or worse, becoming porn addicts, sex addicts, risk-takers, violent or otherwise messed-up. But the scientific research doesn’t find real evidence of that. On the other hand, some porn can have some positive mental health effects, particularly for queer or trans youth.

If the effect on behaviour isn’t parents’ main concern, what is? According to Jessica Wood, a researcher with the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada, it’s the effect on a kid’s attitudes—and this fear is legit. “If youth are consuming sexually explicit material and they don’t have critical media literacy skills, a person to talk to about it and a place to turn to where they know the information is good, then this could impact their attitudes,” she says. The result is that kids might internalize stereotypes around gender, sexual orientation and sexual identity, or might believe that sex should be a grand performance.

And the skills, those conversations, those resources that can prevent kids from developing those negative perceptions and attitudes? Parents can begin instilling and offering them at a young age—as in, while watching Paw Patrol. Yes, that young.

Good examples crowd out bad

No one’s suggesting parents talk to kindergarteners about pornography. But how about a chat about lack of female representation on their favourite show? “How come there’s only one girl dog? What’s up with that?” says Wood, illustrating the kinds of conversations parents can initiate to develop media literacy skills. “Ask them questions like: ‘Is that what’s going on in your classroom?’” Pointing out a lack of girls in a cartoon may seem to have nothing to do with how your kid might handle porn as a teenager, but the research says it does. A kid who knows how to recognize a lack of respect or equality will be better equipped to deal with harder-core versions of that later on.

Similarly, talking to young kids about consent and healthy relationships from a very young age can mitigate the negative effects of some types of porn a decade later. “When my sons and I recently watched Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, I paused during a scene where Merlin has magically changed shape into a chipmunk and a female chipmunk won’t leave him alone, to talk about how ignoring a clear ‘no’ shouldn’t be played for laughs,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, a Canadian non-profit organization that promotes digital and media literacy. Just be careful that you don’t sound too negative about the show you’re critiquing, he warns. If kids feel like we’re telling them not to like something they enjoy, they might tune us out.

If kids also know how to access high-quality resources to satisfy their natural curiosities about their bodies and sexuality, they’re less likely to turn to unhealthy ones. Wood recommends the Every Body Curious video series by sex educator Nadine Thornhill and researcher Eva Bloom. Aimed at kids aged 9-12, it goes beyond “the talk” to help both parents and kids get comfortable talking about love, healthy relationships and consent. Wood is also a big fan of the book Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg. In addition to providing solid information about puberty and other standard fare, says Wood, “it also talks about having good relationships and being a good person. It establishes sexuality in the values of respect, care, and justice.”

Look for opportunities in your day-to-day life to talk to your kids about things like relationships, consent, body image or human diversity in media. We worry that one day, our kids will experience negative representations of these topics in pornography, but Johnson argues that your kids are already seeing them “in other kinds of sexualized media, like music videos and video games.” So have those conversations early.

The bottom line is that when kids understand equality and respect, and can discern what’s trustworthy, it’s like a vaccine against the most troubling aspects of porn. As they get older, they’ll likely make better choices about what they seek out, and won’t be as influenced by media (whether online or not) that shows stereotypical, violent or disturbing things.“The stronger the positive message they get from you, the less space there is for problematic media representations to have an influence,” says Johnson.

What about parental controls? 

Parental controls work by restricting what kids can access on the internet and experts agree they can be a useful tool. But they aren’t perfect, and won’t always perfectly filter out all adult content. Plus, down the road, they’ll also block your child from accessing good information on sexuality. Parental controls can’t be a substitute for the skills kids will need eventually. “They’re going to have access at some point in their lives,” says Wood. “And we want them to go into that with the best tools they can have.”

“The most important thing for parents to do when kids start using the internet more independently is to clearly communicate the rules and values they expect their children to follow when they’re online,” says Johnson. MediaSmarts produces a handy contract that parents and children can sign before a child is given a new device, covering all aspects of online safety and respect. Parents should review those rules with their kids regularly.

What if young kids still end up seeing something X-rated? 

If you think it’s rare for kids to be exposed to pornography, you may not have spent much time in elementary school lunchrooms. Although the data on these kinds of events are sparse, they tend to involve kids stumbling upon images rather than seeking them out, according to Wood. Still, by the time kids are twelve, seven percent have made purposeful visits to pornography sites. That percentage is higher if considering boys only, but even here, check your stereotypes: MediaSmarts research shows that kids are less likely to visit porn sites if their household has rules against it—and those rules are more often in place for girls.

So what if, like me, parental controls fail, or a pop-up ad defeats them, and your kid sees something disturbing or simply not age-appropriate?

First of all, hopefully you discovered this because your child told you about it. “The top rule for kids should be to tell their parents right away any time they have problems online, whether it’s somebody contacting them through the chat function on Minecraft or Roblox, or a video turning out to be something other than what they expected,” says Johnson.

The top rule for parents, he adds, is “to not freak out when they do.” It may be difficult to stay calm, but it’s essential. “We want children to feel comfortable turning to us for help and advice when these incidents happen,” says Johnson.

Take a deep breath, and start with something like, “Thank you for telling me.” Ask them in a non-judgmental way what they saw and how it made them feel, and answer any questions they might have. Remind kids that most porn is acted and not realistic. As Thornhill explains, kids understand that car-chase scenes in movies aren’t realistic because they have direct experience with cars, but they won’t have that context when it comes to sex.

Know that as shocked or even appalled as you may be, saying things like, “How could you look at stuff like that?!” or “This stuff is really bad” to a naturally curious kid could do more damage than porn itself. “Shaming by parents is absolutely worse than seeing sexually explicit media that is confusing or makes them uncomfortable,” says Terry Humphreys, psychology professor and editor of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. “Shaming them only perpetuates a cycle of negativity with respect to their own understanding of sexuality.”

And if you’re breathing into a paper bag, remember it’s OK if you don’t know what to do immediately. Parents sometimes worry about not having the right answers and so chose to say nothing. “But you can seek out the answers,” says Wood. “You can find that information and bring it back to them.” As with many things in parenting, saying nothing is saying something. According to Humphreys, many parents believe that they are open to their child coming to them with sexuality questions, but if the topic is typically met with silence, awkwardness or negativity, the kid is likely to turn elsewhere.

Starting early works

For my family, the foundational approach paid off. Ever since the “girls without tops on” incident, my son and I have had frank conversations about how it’s natural to be curious about sex and nudity, but the internet contains a mix of OK and not-OK things, so he should always talk with me first. My son is now almost thirteen, and he recently sat me down on the couch and said quite matter-of-fact: “Mom, I think I’m ready to look at, what’s that thing called again? Erotica? Yeah, that. I’m not ready for anything else yet.” He’s reportedly happy with a photos-only website called “Boobs Around the World,” which sounds like something a 13-year-old heterosexual boy would have created.

This may sound daunting to parents who haven’t encountered the teen years yet. But personally, I’m far less fearful that my son is vulnerable to the darker corners of the internet, even though I give him a fair bit of online autonomy at this age.

Even when my son was eight, when his tablet privileges were still on hiatus, I had indications that communication channels hadn’t been damaged. “Mom, I’ve noticed something about boys.” He looked at me, doe-eyed and earnest. “When they look at something they like, their crotches get hard. Have scientists discovered this yet?”

Yes, sweetheart. They have.

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