There is mounting evidence that children and teens are viewing pornography in alarming numbers, due to the ready access the internet provides. Access can be by accident for many, while other children/teens may go searching for it.
On behalf of Parenting SA, Dr Justin Coulson, nationally recognised parenting speaker, author and researcher, discusses the effect of pornography on children and teens including the impact on self-worth, body image and relationships. He provides tips for parents on how to talk to children about it.
The Parenting SA website has a broad range of Parent Easy Guides for parents of children aged 0 to 18 years.
Hi, I’m Dr Justin Coulson, parenting author, researcher and speaker, and in this video we are talking about ‘children, teens and pornography’.
There are some alarming statistics that tell us that children and teens are becoming increasingly exposed to pornography, mostly thanks to the ready availability of Internet porn. Some data suggests that as many as 9 out of 10 young people aged between 8 and 16 have been exposed to pornography. The average age of exposure: 11 years old.
Pornography is affecting how our children and young people view themselves and how they think about relationships. Many parents are just not sure how to approach the issue. As you’d expect, exposure to pornographic content on the Internet (or anywhere, for that matter) brings with it some significant risks for our children. Now, I need to warn you that some parents might find some of the things that I’m going to share with you quite confronting. But it’s important to understand the reality of the world that our children live in. Just as we would want to be informed about risks to their safety when it comes to things like roads and swimming pools, we need to be aware of risks to their health and wellbeing when it comes to Internet and pornography.
So, let me highlight a few of those risks. First: Evidence suggests that consuming pornography actually affects self-worth negatively. It creates feelings of shame and guilt and inadequacy that can be really quite lasting, very difficult to overcome. Researchers believe that viewing the shapely, and often artificially enhanced sexual body parts of pornography actors, creates body image issues for both boys and girls. ‘How can I look like that? I’ll never be good enough’. Pornography has been shown to cause harm to relationships for people of all ages. Some people copy what they’ve seen in pornography. This is a problem because so much porn today is violent. There are other risks as well like criminal charges being laid for possession of child porn or even more serious issues again. Now, while some of these potential outcomes of viewing pornography may be more harmful than others, I think any concerned and nurturing parent is going to want to seek to help their children to avoid all of these difficulties. Research is increasingly indicating that pornography is addictive. And this may be especially true for young people. The earlier someone begins consuming pornography, the greater potential risk that she or he is exposed to.
So, how do we teach our children to make responsible decisions about pornography? I’m going to suggest 7 steps to help. First: We want our children to be open to our influence, which means that they need to trust us. But if our relationship is mainly built around ‘correction and direction’, that is, if we are always telling them what to do and how to do it and when to do it, they are going to feel like they are always in trouble. They are less likely to listen to us; we are less likely to have a good relationship. And if they won’t listen to us in the small things, how can we expect that they’ll listen to us in big things like conversations around sex and pornography?
Next: Make sex less mysterious. When kids are young, use proper names for penis and vagina and breasts. Teach children about keeping their body safe. As they get older, you want to teach them about babies and procreation, and sort of extend those conversations into how to have healthy sexual relationships. Talk about how pornography can be detrimental in their sexual education and their experience.
Next: Keep topics appropriate for your child’s stage of development and respond honestly to their questions. Satisfy their curiosity. If your child has questions about pornography, help them to understand that… first, the people in these films and images are acting. Second, they are actually being told what to do. But that doesn’t mean that they like it, even if they are acting like they like it. Third: the actors are kind of like stunt actors in normal movies. They are doing things that normal people don’t do, so that they can make people pay attention. Fourth: most men and women do not look like these actors. There’s a whole lot of lighting, there’s make-up, there’s video production, there’s technology. And fifth and finally, in real life sex is just not like it is in these movies, and actually it’s not necessarily meant to be.
At the beginning of this video I listed some of the difficulties that consumers of pornography may face. As your children become old enough to discuss these topics, dive in. Be interested. Ask them about the experiences of friends at school. Talk about the troubles and trials that peers are experiencing in their relationships that are related to their exposure and access to pornography. They can be tough conversations, but they can also be remarkably rewarding.
One of the most important things that we can discuss with our children is how they think others would feel if they were asked to do something shown in a pornographic film or image. For example, you might ask your 16-year old son, ‘How would your girlfriend feel if you told her that she had to do what they do in the movies?’ ‘How would you feel if you had to do what you are asking of her?’ You could ask your child how they’d feel if their siblings were the ‘stars’ of these films. Would they feel like it was OK for a family member to participate in producing this content? And if no, does it seem right that they are consuming it when it’s actually someone else’s sibling or someone else’s daughter… or son?
Creating a sense of empathy for the people who are actually involved in the production of pornographic content and for those that they may wish to experiment sexually with (based on what pornography teaches) might actually reduce the likelihood that they’ll consume pornography, or that they’ll seek to copy it. See, when we tell our children what to do, they often resist. Too much control overrides their autonomy, and it leads to rebellion. Rather than telling children what to do, ask them what they think. You might use questions like, ‘How would that make someone feel?’ or ‘What do you think is the right way to respond?’ You could ask, ‘Who could you tell if something like that happened to someone that you care about?’
See, your child is going to be exposed to pornography. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. So, you might ask them something like… ‘What would you do if someone at school tries to show you something explicit in the playground or on the school bus?’... ‘What happens if you are having a sleepover and someone starts looking up pornography on the Internet?’… ‘How will you avoid looking at pornography if you are at home on the computer and you get curious?’ You want to talk to them about what they can say to friends if this happens or how to call for help, or how to distract themselves and get away.
Taking the time to have the tough talks is challenging. But it may be the most effective solution that parents have to safeguard their children.