The ease of access to pornography has changed rapidly. The stash of hidden magazines you might remember from your youth is vastly different from the sexually explicit content children can be exposed to today. And parents often underestimate the extent of their child’s exposure to online porn.
International estimates of the proportion of children and young people who have viewed porn vary, from around 43% to 99% in older age groups. Exposure to online porn often begins around the age of ten or 11, and increases with age.
Research suggests young porn users are more likely to have unrealistic attitudes about sexual activity and relationships. They tend to be more accepting of stereotyped gender roles.
While young porn users often have a more relaxed and permissive attitude to sex, they may not have a clear understanding about the importance of consent, pleasure, sexual health or safety in their sexual relationships.
The benefits of having open, clear, factual discussions with children about online media and digital relationships are clear. Children who receive sex and relationship education from an early age are more likely to:
- understand and accept physical and emotional changes with confidence
- feel positive about their bodies
- appreciate and accept individual differences
- make informed and responsible sexual decisions later in life
- feel good about themselves and their gender
- be capable of communicating about sexual matters
- understand what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.
They’re also less likely to be exploited or sexually abused.
So we need to talk to our kids about sex, and porn, without sending them cringing back to their bedrooms.
Overcoming the barriers
Your own views about porn and respectful relationships are likely to influence how you feel about discussing the issue with your children.
But regardless of whether your view is that consensual adult porn is a normal and enjoyable part of adults’ sex lives, or an exploitative practice, the most important thing you need to do is to keep open the channels of communication with your children.
Discuss your family’s values and beliefs as well as the continuum of beliefs that may be held in the community. In response to a young person’s exposure to material online, for example, a parent could say:
I can see you were a bit worried about what you saw this morning on the computer. There were some pretty explicit sex acts shown there.
What’s important to remember is that people have different ideas about pleasure and how they express their sexuality, and that may not agree with our values and how you or I view things.
I’d really like to hear what you thought about it and how you felt…
Children are more likely to keep the communication lines open if you are being honest and truthful.
Dealing with young children
Young children under the age of seven or eight are unlikely to understand the meaning of any pornography that they see.
At this age, the best approach is to focus on accurate and open information about bodies being private, and on consent, personal space and safety. You don’t have to go into great detail about pornography; you can tell them that sex is an adult or older person’s activity.
But don’t avoid or ignore their questions if they ask. Keep conversations brief, factual and honest, and use correct terminology for body parts.
Monitor your child’s use of electronic devices and the internet, but also let your child know you are always happy to talk with them. Tell them that if they see something in public – and the internet is public – to let you know.
Older children and adolescents
It’s normal for young people to want to learn about sex and relationships, and they will access online media for all forms of learning. Monitoring what older children and adolescents access is important, but open, honest communication is even more critical.
If you’ve laid the groundwork, as your child gets older and becomes more interested in the topic, it will be easier to have conversations about sex, what’s good and not so good about it, and about portrayals of sex, relationships and sexual identity in the media.
There is no one right age for these discussions, but you’ll want to tailor your conversations so they’re age-appropriate. If your four-year-old comes home and tells you that Johnny has two mummies, for instance, you might use it as an opportunity to discuss how families are different.
If you notice your 11-year-old giggling at the cover of a women’s magazine’s “ten tips for better sex”, take the time to engage in a conversation about what they find amusing or uncomfortable.
If your child is either purposefully or accidentally accessing porn, rather than shaming them or getting angry, talk calmly to them about what they saw, how it made them feel, and the implications of what they saw.
Regardless of your own views about porn, it’s important to let children know that what is portrayed is not reflective of most relationships. The actors and the sex acts may not represent reality and may present a simplified and incorrect – and sometimes non-consensual – image of sex and relationships.
Note that any material involving sexual activity with or between people under 18 years of age may constitute child abuse material. To a child or young person, these actors may look like peers. So it’s important to discuss age, power and consent.
When parents are able to respond to children’s curiosity and talk about porn, they can help young people develop safety skills and recognise the importance of their own sexual health and well-being.
If you think your child may be excessively viewing pornography, viewing violent or degrading material, or not processing the fiction of the content, you may want to seek the advice of a sexual health provider, such as state-based family planning clinics.
This article was co-authored by Melanie Grabski from True: Relationships and Reproductive Health.