Digital wellness / June 07, 2023

How to talk to your kids about pornography

Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson

Director of Education, MediaSmarts

Father talking with son on a park bench

Online pornography combines two of parents’ least-favourite things to discuss with our kids: sex and the internet. It’s important, though, to make sure that kids aren’t getting their sex education – or their ideas about healthy relationships and consent – from porn.

Fewer kids seek out porn than you may think: MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wireless World research found twenty percent of kids in grades 7-11 look for pornography online. A third of kids, though, see it without looking for it — and almost half of youth take steps to keep from seeing it.

Given the likelihood that youth are going to see pornography, not to mention the many messages they get about sex through other media, it’s important to start talking to them about healthy relationships and sexuality at an early age. While less than half of kids say that a trusted adult has talked to them about porn, three-quarters of those who have talked to an adult say the conversation helped them.

If you learn that your child has seen porn, don’t make assumptions about how it happened: they might have looked for it, but they may also have found it while looking for information on sexuality, they may have seen it accidentally, or someone may have sent it to them. Ask them how it happened before planning your next step:

  • If it happened accidentally, talk about ways that they can stop that from happening again, like using content controls, turning off autoplay, or not clicking on unknown links.
  • If it was on purpose, the tips below will help you have a conversation about what they’ve seen and how it made them feel.

Remember though, you don’t have to wait until kids have seen porn to talk about it! In fact it is recommended to proactively discuss it - in age appropriate ways - so they can take steps to avoid it, and/or are prepared for if and when they do see pornography.

Here’s are some tips on talking to kids about pornography and sexualized media at different ages:

Young children

You don’t have to talk about pornography to prepare young kids to deal with it. Instead, you can talk about things like consent, gender stereotypes, managing online content and healthy sexuality and relationships.

  • Talk to kids about sex, healthy relationships and consent from an early age. They are being exposed to sexual images in various media so you need to establish an open and honest dialogue early and create an environment where they feel comfortable coming to you with questions.
  • Help them recognize and critique gender and sexual stereotypes. Point out how boys and girls are depicted on toy packages, in clothing catalogues, in advertisements or in movies, and ask them how that matches (or doesn’t match) with people they know.
  • Younger kids often see inappropriate content in ads, so install ad-blocking plugins or apps like Privacy Badger or Blokada on all browsers and devices.
  • If they do stumble across pornography, remain calm. Ask them if they have any questions and work together to find ways to keep it from happening again. Reassure them that anything they’re feeling is normal and that they can talk to you about it any time they want.

Tweens and teens

Research suggests that the tween and early teen years are the best time to start talking specifically about pornography. The best approach at this age is an ongoing dialogue that acknowledges their interest in relationships and sex as normal and helps them develop the critical thinking skills to make good online decisions.

  • The biggest worry about porn is that it will influence kids’ “sexual scripts” – their idea of what they should do, or what their partners will expect them to do, when they have sex. That’s a lot less likely to happen, though, if they’ve already got good information about sexuality and healthy relationships. As well as talking to them, you can direct them to (or explore with them) good-quality sources like Sex & U.
  • While it’s important to help kids understand that pornography is not real, that’s not enough because they often think that other kids believe it is. To help deal with this, ask:
    • “What do you think other kids your age believe about porn?” (Tell them most young people do know that porn isn’t real, and don’t expect their partners to do things seen in porn.)
    • “What do you think someone younger than you should know about pornography before they first see it?”
  • Establish clear rules about visiting pornographic sites. Making your values and expectations clear to your kids is one of the most effective ways of influencing their behaviour.
  • After a certain age, parental controls are no longer a viable solution, but content filters can help keep them from seeing unwanted porn and can significantly reduce the number of sexualized videos that they see on social networks such as TikTok or Instagram.

Another important message is that nobody should ever make them watch porn without their consent. Whether it’s somebody sending them a nude picture, a friend sending a link to a pornographic video, or somebody showing something on their phone, tell kids they always have a right to say ‘no’ if they don’t want to see it. If someone doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, kids should block them and tell you what happened right away.

To build on this discussion, discourage the common “culture of sharing” among youth where intimate images are forwarded on to other people without their consent. To learn more visit telus.com/HowWouldUFeel. The #howwouldUfeel videos and resources are based on key findings from the MediaSmarts research, Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth.

Tags:
Smartphones
Kids & tech
Prevention & support
Sexting
Mental health
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