How to talk to your children about porn – and why you need to
9th March 2022

Children are being exposed to online porn earlier and earlier.

Recent British Board of Film Classification research discovered that British children and teenagers are watching from an increasingly early age; in some cases as young as seven or eight.

It’s a growing problem and consumption is widespread.

A study from Middlesex University found that around 53% of 11 to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online, nearly all of whom (94%) had seen it by 14.

Worryingly, research conducted by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) found that teenagers are increasingly using explicit content as a way of learning about sex.

The report found that most children had viewed pornography they found disturbing, or overly aggressive. 

Many also said that watching porn led them to be influenced in how they behaved in sexual encounters, and exacerbated concerns about body image.  

There’s no getting away from the fact that porn has become a normalised part of young people’s lives – so it’s hugely important to talk to your children about it, before it’s too late.

‘The average age a child first watches pornography online today is around eight years old, sometimes younger,’ Lianne Young, one of UK’s leading advisors on sex, relationships and adult entertainment tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It’s not that they are typing the word porn into a computer or searching for it, it’s the technology of the world we live in today.

‘In fact I know many young boys who simply write the word boobs into the Google bar and they get flooded with all kinds of X-rated images.’

The impact can be massive.

Why it’s so important to broach the subject of porn with children

From an early age, children are regularly exposed to sexualised images.

Providing age-appropriate comprehensive sex education for young people is fundamental for their development, yet it is absent in many school curricula.

‘Although most parents agree that sex education is necessary, they often fail to talk about sex at home,’ says Erika Lust, ethical porn creator and founder of The Porn Conversation, a porn literacy project to guide parents in these exact conversations. ‘This is vital. It’s only natural that young people are curious about sex.

‘When they don’t have access to age-appropriate and evidence-informed sex education from trusted sources and adults, they are left to learn about sex through what they find online, which in many cases, is porn.

‘Whether it’s an advertisement, a video game, a social media post, or a pop-up, it’s nearly impossible to protect our teens from ever seeing sexual content in their adolescence.

‘According to several long term research studies, adolescent pornography viewing predicts a variety of sexual experiences that range from violence to the objectification of women.’

As Erika points out, a large number of young people are streaming porn from the numerous free online porn websites, and the probability that these sites provide children their first exposure to sex is high.

This equally means that they are being exposed to the harmful messages free online porn often promotes.

‘These include unrealistic expectations of sex, objectification of girls and women, racism, violence, and the sexualisation of teens,’ Erika says.

However, starting the conversation early, and explaining that porn is not real life, can make all the difference.

The importance of children not learning about sex from porn

This can’t be stressed enough. If children are turning to porn as a way of learning about sex, the impact can be devastating.

If children view hardcore porn, or porn depicting violence against women, for example, without knowing that it’s not real and that’s not what sex has to mean, it can lead to problematic behaviour and a lack of understanding.

‘Children can find pornography fairly easily on the internet due to their curiosity or purely by accident nowadays,’ says Carolyn Bunting MBE, CEO of Internet Matters.

‘This can be upsetting, shocking and might impact them later in life because it can distort their understanding and expectation of sex and relationships. 

‘It can also lead to inappropriate expectations of behaviours or body types, as well as objectification for both girls and boys.

‘It is important for a child to have a clear understand of what respectful and appropriate behaviour looks like within relationships and sexual experiences.’

When is the right time to discuss sex and porn with your children?

Lianne suggests that when your child starts asking questions about where babies come from, or why people are kissing on-screen, this is the time to openly answer questions they may have around sex.

‘You don’t need to go into deep conversation about porn, or even sex for that matter but you should definitely not avoid the subject,’ she says.

‘I advise parents to cover pornography talk the same time you cover the sex talk. You cannot talk about pornography too early – in an age-appropriate way – when you are giving your child access to computers and technical devices.’

Erika explains that by the age of eight, children have usually already shown curiosity about their genitals, awareness of gender and racial stereotypes, and may have asked where babies come from.

‘They are interested in learning what is myth and what is fact when it comes to what they’re hearing about sex,’ she says. ‘It’s never too late or too soon to start the porn conversation.’

‘By beginning these conversations early with our children, they will build trust, gain knowledge, and prepare for what’s to come.

But how to do it?

It’s all very well understanding why it’s important, but how to actually have the conversation is a whole other matter.

‘How you engage in a conversation with your child around pornography will vary by age but there are some key elements you can use to shape how you have that conversation,’ says Carolyn.

‘Try to be as natural as possible, open to listening to their experiences and adopt a no-blame approach.

‘Starting to explain about consent and what constitutes a healthy relationship is a great place to start from around the age of five using illustrations and books to help explain in their terms. 

‘By the age of 15, children are more likely than not to have been exposed to online pornography so talking to them early on can equip them with the right coping strategies to deal with it.

‘A deep discussion on pornography isn’t recommended for younger children but, regardless of age, it is important that your child feels they can come and speak to you and you will listen without judgement or overreaction.’

Some practical tips for discussing porn with children

First things first, try to be natural and straightforward.

‘If you seem embarrassed to talk about sex and pornography your child will also feel uncomfortable and will be unlikely to let you know if they have seen sexual images, or feel comfortable approaching you with the topic again in the future,’ Carolyn continues.

Erika echoes this, while acknowledging that it’s OK to feel nervous – but that you should try not to show it. It shouldn’t feel like something your child needs to feel embarrassed about.

‘Remember that your child will follow your lead- if you feel too embarrassed to talk comfortably about sex, they will feel equally as uncomfortable,’ Erika says.

‘The goal here is to make more common conversations around topics of sex and porn, not to shame or embarrass your child.

‘Some talking points to start off can include: “I want to talk to you about something really important that we will talk about a bunch of times, but starting could be weird…”, or “I know you may see porn at some point, it’s practically unavoidable! So here’s what you need to know about it…”, or “Could you put your phone/tablet down for a moment? I want to talk to you about some of the images or videos you may have seen online…”’

‘Keep the conversation casual, and talk to your child as the teen they are soon becoming.

‘Be clear that is a judgment-free conversation, and listen more than you talk. Let them know that this is a private conversation that won’t be shared with others without their consent.’

‘Although it may not seem like it, teens report that their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions about sex—more than friends, siblings, or the media.’

Internet Matters suggests that parents should also be on the lookout for teachable moments.

‘For example, talking about issues as they come up on TV, in movies or online can help you kick start a conversation and give you the opportunity to talk about your values and beliefs on the issues.’

And, find out what they already know.

‘Children may hear or see things at school which they have questions about. Use this as an opportunity to ask them more about what they know, dispel any myths and give them the right information,’ Carolyn says.

Don’t punish your child for looking at porn

Kirsty Ketley is qualified early years and parenting consultant.

She suggests that, if you’re feeling awkward, you could try having a conversation while you are out for a walk or driving.

‘It can help you feel more relaxed, but it shouldn’t be an ‘off-limits’ subject and talking regularly with your child about their online viewing will make it a ‘normal’ part of life – like asking about their school day,’ she says.

‘This will help everyone feel more relaxed but means that your child is more likely to come to you with any concerns.

‘It is important that you don’t tell them off if they look at porn – they might have conflicting emotions about what they have seen and need reassurance from you that it is ok to be curious about sex – it is a normal part of growing up.

‘Try not to be judgemental or overreact but do try to explain that watching adult content too young can be harmful and that how bodies and sex are depicted in a lot of porn are not realistic.

‘They need to understand consent and that porn can make non-consensual sex appear ‘ok’ but it really is not and talk about how relationships and sex should be about trust and respect. 

‘If your child is being shown porn by other children – sent through chat groups for instance, speak with their school and reassure your child that they can come to you or a teacher if they are finding it upsetting.’

They might have questions…

Finally, once you get talking, they might have some questions – more than you could imagine.

‘And yes,’ says Erika, ‘we should be prepared to respond to these according to their age.’

This is why the team at The Porn Conversation has put together some useful conversation guides for families that are appropriate for each age group; 8 to 11 years old, 12 to 15 years old, and 16+ years old.

Check them out for tips on how to open up the conversation and how to respond to their questions.

How to keep your kids safe online

Set parental controls on your home broadband and on your child’s devices to make sure they aren’t seeing content they shouldn’t. Some parents think parental controls are difficult to set up, but step by step guides on the Internet Matters website makes it straightforward. 

Review apps on your child’s device to check if it’s suitable for their age. For example, the minimum age for most social media platforms is 13, so make sure your child is only using platforms that are appropriate. 

Check their privacy and location settings on their devices and apps. If they’re gaming or using social media, it’s important their account is set to the correct privacy setting so they aren’t sharing personal information to people they don’t know. It’s also important to check their location settings to make sure they aren’t unintentionally sharing their whereabouts. Talk to your child to make sure they have the correct settings in place before sharing any content.

Set digital boundaries as a family, including when and where they can use portable devices and for how long, before they get used to doing their own thing. By doing this, you can keep an eye on how long they are spending online and the types of things they are getting up to. 

Keep talking to your child about what they get up to online and any new apps or websites they currently enjoy using. A great time to do this is when they get a new device or mention a new website or app, but it’s also important to continue the conversation as trends move quickly. 

How to report inappropriate content:

  • Reporting incident images of children – if you or your child come across any illegal sexual images of children report them to the Internet Watch Foundation. 
  • Use the Internet Matters set-up safe guides to see how to report to the relevant providers. 

Source: Internet Matters.

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