What To Do If You Find Your Kid Is Watching Porn

Inspired by this story of a dad’s response to finding out that his 13 year old son has started watching porn I thought I’d write a few thoughts. They were originally meant to be in this article but they didn’t make it. It’s a bit of a rushed work in progress but thought I’d get it out there now.

This piece tries to give advice about how best to deal with a kid watching porn. I’m not a parent but I have worked with thousands of teens face to face and online and chatted with them about their experiences of and use of porn. First of all I’m going to give a brief summary, as I understand it, of the evidence around porn and young people.

The ‘Effects’ of Porn on Young People

Many parents might worry that the porn their teen has been watching can cause them harm. Research into the effects that porn has on young people is very very difficult to conduct because of the ethical issues of asking young people under 18 to look at sexually explicit materials. This means that we don’t know for sure what effects porn has on young people, if any.

An excellent peer reviewed review of the available research was commissioned by Ofcom and written by Dr Guy Cumberbatch in 2011. This is a really useful document which summarises what we do know, what we don’t know for sure and points out some of the weaknesses of the research that is available. The link is here (from page 84).

According to the review, research looking into the effects that porn has on young pepole points to an association between porn consumption and attitudes and values which have been taken to be problematic:

“greater sexual permissiveness; stronger support for recreational sex; stronger beliefs that women are sex objects; stronger belief in instrumental attitudes to sex; greater sexual uncertainty; higher endorsement of uncommitted sex; lower sexual satisfaction; higher sexual preoccupation; earlier sexual activity; a greater number of sexual partners; higher probability of anal intercourse.”

Some of these are pretty subjective measures which some people may see as problematic and others may not. One of the criticisms of many people researching porn is that the measures of ‘harm’ are simply ‘non-normative’ sex values: that is sex which is not in the context of a monogamous, committed and (presumably) heterosexual relationship.

“This kind of research also often rests on an implicit and moralistic view of certain kinds of sex – especially sex which is commodified, casual or kinky – as morally wrong or socially problematic.” Feona Attwood 2011

These attitudinal effects are very small. According to Dr Cumberbatch “Typically, exposure to sexually explicit material might account for no more than 1-2% of the variance in sexual attitudes.” This means that there may have been other factors which might be having an effect on this variance in attitudes between people who do and don’t consume porn which haven’t been tested.

There isn’t a proven causal link between porn and these attitudes. People may have these attitudes in order to be drawn to watching porn, So there could be a change in attitudes as a result of watching porn, or it could be that there isn’t. Or someone who is interested in porn may have some of these attitudes in the first place “Or it could be that there is a reciprocal relationship between the two.”

What Young People Do With Porn

Singling out whether porn has a direct effect on young people is going to be problematic because young people encounter lots of different kinds of sexually explicit media. Even defining what ‘sexually explicit’ and ‘porn’ means has been very problematic in the research reviewed above. There is also a problem in using quantitative research methods looking at effects and messages which overlook the dynamic way which people interact with media generally.

Many researchers think that it’s more useful to go further than looking at whether this media is harmful per se and to consider how people consume sexually explicit materials, why they view them, how they view their experience, to what extent they are critical viewers and in what way they feel it affects them. Some of these studies are also reviewed in Dr Cumberbatch’s review.

Young people aren’t passive consumers of any media. Media literacy is something that children pick up from a very early age. For instance by the age of 5 they will know that what they see on the TV is sometimes real and sometimes made up. (Link page 15). The work of David Buckingham and Sara Bragg in the area of young people, media and sexually explicit materials suggests that young people are not passively exposed to sexually explicit materials but are critical and literate and that this material ‘an occasion for individuals to scrutinise their own desires, conduct and responses.’ Link

As Clare Bale wrote “Young people draw upon their own experiences and emerging identities to interpret the media and employ broader values such as trust and mutual respect to formulate their attitudes, beliefs and values in their readings of media texts.” Raunch or Romance

Not all use of porn is for the same reason either. Some young people are exposed to porn without their consent (pop-ups, email links etc), others are curious about what porn is and just have a quick look, others look because some of it is funny or shocking, some to rebel, some to learn and some to be sexually aroused by.

Porn, the internet and young people is an issue which is often talked up as an issue. The EU Kids Online project, an in depth and robust study from LSE interviewed 25,000 young people and one of their parents across Europe. The numbers of young people who have seen sexual images may surprise you.

“Children encounter pornography online and offline – 14 per cent of 9-16 year olds have seen sexual images online, and 4 per cent (about 25 per cent of those who had seen sexual images online) were upset by this; 23 per cent have seen sexual images altogether (including on websites but also television or videos/DVDs – 12 per cent, in magazines or books – 7 per cent).” Report here

Girls and younger children are more likely to be upset by images that they see. Their response it typically to close the image down and to tell either a parent or a friend about what they’ve seen. Older teens are less likely to be upset by them.

This all suggests that rather than being exposed to harmful images, young people are actively filtering and developing their own understanding of text which is concomitant with an increased interest in sex and their own emergent identities. Young people are perhaps setting their own rules for what they are ready for and if they see something they don’t like they switch off and/or they talk it through with someone – just as they might with any media which they may find upsetting.

So Should We Do Anything About Young People Watching Porn?

None of the research I’ve highlighted here is conclusive, as I said at the beginning ethical considerations (ie we can’t show porn to kids and measure the results) means that research is limited. However of the research which has been conducted and reviewed we can see that the picture is much more complicated than many people would have us believe. There isn’t evidence of porn causing harm in young people right now and many might argue that this isn’t even a very enlightening question.

So should we just let young people go and work this stuff out for themselves? In my opinion, no. If young people are watching porn they are learning from it, either intentionally or not. There are some things which porn teaches well and some things which porn teaches dreadfully. All the research agrees that what is needed is really good quality sex education in order to fill in the huge gaps that porn leaves as sex education.

In Denmark pornography is included in the sex education syllabus. The rationale for this is summed up by the Danish Minister for Equality. “We can put an abundance of filters on computers to remove porn, but this won‘t make any difference. The filters must be inside children‘s and young people‘s heads‘.”

This is why I cover porn extensively at bishUK.com/porn

So how should parents deal with their kid’s use of porn? There’s nothing to stop a parent from saying what they think is right or wrong, telling their child what they personally think about porn and how they want their kid to behave. However I think this needs to be done within a context of active mediation, an open dialogue about sexually explicit media and really great sex education.

What’s Right and Wrong

Like most things to do with sex many people can have very powerful and conflicting values about porn. Discourse around porn is also very two sided at the moment so it’s easy to get drawn into a side of being very pro or very anti porn.

My advice to parents is to think carefully about your values about porn and to let your kids know what you think, what your concerns are, what would bother you about them watching porn. But it’s also important to speak for yourself. Not everyone is going to share your values and your values may not tally with what we know from research. Be honest that this is about you and what you think. You’ll also need to acknowledge that whilst your kids may well think that what you have to say is really important, they are also building on their own values.

To give you an idea of some of the areas you might want to think about visit my piece Porn: Is It Legal, Is It Right?

Actively Mediate and Keep a Dialogue Open

The best way for any talk about sex is to remember that it’s a conversation. Just shouting and not listening is simply not effective, even if it makes the parent feel better. It will shut down the conversation, the young person will clam up, the parent won’t get any more info from them, the young person will hide their porn consumption, the parent won’t know what they are watching so they will less likely to be safe – precisely the opposite outcome of what the parent wanted to achieve with the shouting.

This active engagement can actually make kids safer online. Research from the extensive ‘EU Kids Online’ project shows that active mediation is the most effective way of reducing the risks of harm for kids online as well as increasing their online opportunities. The more opportunities a young person has online the more resilient they become to risks. Active mediation means talking about the sites they are visiting and sharing online experiences together (though this may be more problematic around porn use). Contrary to what you may have heard, young people broadly welcome parental input in their use of the internet. Link

Keeping an open dialogue means that we can also be alert to red flags. For instance to make sure that someone is not being forced or coerced into looking at images. Also we need to make sure that teens aren’t making and sending their own images. People also need to be aware of the law around the kind of images it is legal to watch (for instance in the UK, you have to be over 18 to watch porn).

Speaking of legality we should be very careful about recommending porn sites to young people. In the UK it’s illegal to show someone porn (for the purposes of sexual gratification) (s12 Sexual Offences Act 2003). Porn can be used as a form of, or in the process of, sexual abuse. Recommending actual sites may be considered a little problematic.

Perhaps a different approach might be to have a conversation about internet skills: how can you tell whether a site is good or not, is a site free, if so who pays for the site, how to deal with pop-ups, how can you trust a link, is it an appropriate site, how can you update the virus software.

Filters can prevent young people from seeing pornographic material and they can be tweaked so that you can block certain sites you wouldn’t want them to see. (Though interestingly research indicates that just using filters is not an effective way of reducing harm for young people online). Search engines also have settings which can be tweaked so that sexually explicit images don’t turn up in results (though young people are pretty good at finding workarounds).

Another way to actively mediate young people’s use of porn, and their use of the internet in general, is to moderate their use of the internet. One of the reasons that I think young people’s use of porn is not as problematic as some people suggest is that many don’t have enough private time to sit in front of a computer to look at porn. This is because they may not have a computer in their bedroom (although increasingly young people do) but also because they are busy doing other things – like using social media, homework, gaming or actually having sex and relationships in the real world.

However prohibiting porn use (or private use of the internet) is unlikely to prevent a porn keen teen from watching what they want. Internet access is becoming increasingly prevalent: a young person could simply watch porn at someone else’s house, or on their phone. Additionally porn and sexual imagery is prevalent on TV, magazines, films and in even in some newspapers.

See Talking About Porn As a Way Of Doing Really Great Sex Ed

Finding out that your kid has started watching porn is also an opportunity to do some seriously good sex education. Young people learn a lot from porn, some good some awful. Unfortunately where young people are not taught high quality sex education, they don’t have the baseline knowledge and understanding to be critical and media literate enough about the images they see. For example boys often say to me that they think women in porn are screaming because the sex is hurting them. I have to explain that this is just bad acting and that sex should feel really pleasurable, not painful

Being able to talk about porn with kids gives an opportunity to talk about: self esteem, body image, sexual decision making, boundaries, pleasure, consent, orgasm, communication, safer sex, sexual safety, the law, feminism, equality, list and love, emotions, relationships, masculine norms, sex scripts, sexuality and oppression.

Many people’s sex education from parents is simply ‘don’t get anyone pregnant’ or ‘don’t have sex till you’re older.’ Talking about porn is a great way to introduce big topics that young people want to talk about. Asking questions like ‘why does the camera always seem to focus on the woman in straight porn’ or ‘why does sex end when the guy orgasms’ or ‘what do you think about the language used to describe people and sexual activity in porn’ brings up areas that might not otherwise be discussed.

A few years ago I created a resource for practitioners (which could also be used by parents) called Planet Porn. This recognises that porn education is really just a means of doing great sex education (for more and a free sample click here) The ability to throw in an open question about porn at the right time can encourage critical thinking, which will stand them in much better stead than simply telling them what to think. This resource helps people to do that but also gives enough information to learn more about porn without actually having to watch it yourself.

Talking about any aspect of sex might not be easy and perhaps talking about porn is even harder. However it can be made easier by trying some of the following quick tips:

  1. Try to do more listening than talking. Listen hard, allow the young person to talk about their experiences, concerns, worries, attitudes. Ask open questions to get them to think about what they are seeing and how this compares with real life.
  2. Talk in the third person. Talk about references to porn or sexually explicit material the media. Talk about the politics of porn maybe (‘lots of people think porn is harmful, why do they think that?’) or about sex scenes in TV shows and films, discussing the difference between idealised images of people having sex and real life.
  3. Set boundaries. You could say that you will never ask them a direct personal question about their use of porn and that you won’t talk about your own experiences. You could agree to talk generally about some of the themes in porn rather than what you are both into.
  4. Ask it basket. Put some slips of paper by the computer and a little box to post them in. They can ask questions about what they’ve seen and you can provide answers to them as best you can.
  5. Use Planet Porn. Print out some of the cards from Planet Porn and stick them around the computer screen. Or play it as an actual discussion game. The resource also gives enough information to learn more about porn without actually having to watch it yourself.
  6. Cheat. Put bishUK.com/porn as the homepage for the web browser.

More Bishy Bishy you may find helpful

An Educational Guide to Porn a brief guide where I compare porn to wrestling

A-Z of Porn Where I explain, inform and take the fun out of common categories from porn tube sites. So far I’ve done A B

Talking to Teens About Sex a guide about how to talk to teens about sex. So good I said it twice.

If You Liked This You’ll Love This where you can find the products I have for working with teens around porn, including Planet Porn.

I hope to be publishing some kind of ebook soon giving more advice to parents about how to talk to teens about porn. I don’t know whether to call it ‘Porn for Parents’ or ‘Mum and Dad Porn.’ (I appreciate both these titles are misleading!). In the meantime feel free to buy a copy of Planet Porn which Charlie Glickman (ace sex educator) called ‘an amazing resource’

4 Comments

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4 responses to “What To Do If You Find Your Kid Is Watching Porn

  1. Reblogged this on Insane Mutterings and commented:
    Many good points and things to think about.

  2. bishtraining

    Ace, thanks!

  3. This is a great post and very informative. Nice to read a different opinion about children and porn, thank you for posting.

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