Many experts view pornography as a public health crisis, especially because of the way that it impacts children and young people. According to the UK Office of the Children’s Commissioner, “ Basically… porn is everywhere.” Their analysis of research into the impact of pornography on children was conducted in 2013, and confirms several concerning things:
First, a significant number of children and young people are exposed to pornography.
Second, exposure and access is most likely to occur online, and exposure increases with age.
Third, boys are more likely to be exposed to it, and actually seek it out.
Fourth, seeing pornography impacts on what children believe about sex and intimacy, and that affects their behaviour; especially their risky behaviours around sex. They found people get hurt because of pornography.
I really recommend you take a look at the report and gather as much information from it as you can. The report is a few years old now, but still has some of the best information out there to help parents and educators keep kids safe.
When I speak on the topic in schools, parents tell me how easily and unexpectedly their young children are exposed to pornography. One mum said, “I noticed that my 8 year-old son seemed upset about something when he came home from school. I asked if he wanted to talk, and with some coaxing I discovered that one of the older boys at school told him to search up "sex" on the Internet. He did, and saw hard-core pornographic images. He also watched an explicit and sexually violent video.”
Another mum told me, “I collected my 11 year-old daughter from a slumber party. She was quiet. I thought she was tired, but she eventually told me that the other girls starting looking up sex and pornography on the iPad once the adults had gone to bed. Her friends' big brother had told them to.”
A dad said he wasn’t bothered too much until “I caught my 7 year-old son searching up terms I didn't know he knew. When I asked him how he learned to search up those words, he told me someone showed him something funny in the playground or on the bus at school. Everyone laughed and even though it made him feel 'yucky', he was curious to see (and know) more.”
And another mum explained: “My 9 year-old was playing on her older brother's iPad when she found pornography. She brought it to me, confused and upset.”
What do we tell our children when they stumble upon pornography accidentally?
The average age of exposure to pornography is around 10 years. Often it happens accidentally, but in many cases someone will show your child explicit material. Here are 7 things every parent can do.
1. Stay calm
Being upset will make your child worried she or he is in trouble. Stay calm and thank your child for being brave enough to let you know and reassure your child that you will sort it out together.
2. Next, just listen
If your child has accidentally stumbled upon explicit content, ask him to tell you about how he found it. Ask him how he located it on his device. This will help you know how you can improve security measures. Find out where it happened, who (if anyone) showed it to him, how he felt when he saw it, and what he viewed. Remember, understand rather than reprimand.
3. Reassure your child that s/he is not in any trouble
Avoid punishment. This will hurt your relationship. It will also reduce the likelihood your child will come to you about tricky issues in the future. Don’t take their device from them immediately or they’ll feel punished. That may come later, but for now, be calm and let him/her know they’re not in trouble.
Remember, your child may be upset about finding pornography, or if she was searching around curiously, even a little traumatised that it was more explicit than she could have imagined. We need to be supportive and understanding, acknowledging how upsetting it can be to see these types of things.
Once you and your children are calm, and are able to talk things through it is time for the pornography conversation
You don’t have to have this conversation as soon as you discover that your child viewed pornography. The first three steps, above, are for that conversation. The following ideas are the “follow-up” talk:
4. Plan your talk
While it is tempting to have a big lecture right there on the spot, it is better to take some time out to plan your conversation about pornography and sex before you start the discussion.
5. Talk about how they felt
Did watching this make your child feel good, bad, safe, scared, uncomfortable, curious, or something else? All of these feelings are normal and children should know it's fine to feel like that. Most children will feel a mix of curiosity and revulsion.
You can also use this as a chance to teach about real intimacy. Did what they viewed seem respectful? Were the people involved both wanting to do what they were doing, or were they just acting? You may wish to teach them that a respectful relationship includes sex where both partners agree to what is happening (use the word "consent" and discuss it) and feel good about it. Ask them if what they saw resembled kind and caring intimacy or dominance, power, and disrespect.
6. Talk about sex
You may wish to talk to them about what sex is and why we have sex. Discussions about love and intimacy are important. So, too, are discussions about boundaries, appropriate age and timing for intimacy, and other personal values related to sex and love.
7. Problem-solve together
Ask them whether they think it is a good idea to look for those kinds of things on the Internet again. (Hint... it's not.)
Encourage them to think of ways to stay safe. Answers might include:
- Avoiding using keywords that lead to these kinds of images
- Updating security levels on devices
- Keeping devices in public places
- Avoiding friends, relatives, and neighbours who are viewing pornography
- Having regular conversations about what your child is viewing.
“Extra Tip”: Encourage your child to talk to you anytime about any questions they have, or anything else they see
In a perfect world, you will have been having positive conversations about sex and intimacy with your children from an early age. A discussion about pornography may not have been in your plans, but accidental exposure to this kind of content demands a response. These tips can provide a useful springboard to further ongoing healthy conversations about intimate topics with your children.