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Are Children Harmed Viewing Sexually Explicit Websites?

Adolescents who view sex online engage in more high-risk sex.

A study by Debra Braun-Courville and Mary Rojas of New York adolescents visiting a health clinic found that 55% had viewed a sexually explicit website and that those that did were more likely than their peers to engage in high-risk sexual activity. That may be shocking but the evidence, unfortunately, isn't altogether clear as to which comes first, our children's promiscuity, sexual activity following drug use, and other risky sexual behaviors or whether kids who are already interested in these behaviors are looking to the internet for information.

There is no doubt that kids are curious about sex and the more precocious they are in their development (going through puberty earlier) the more they are going to look for the information they need. Rightly or wrongly, the internet has served to satisfy our children's curiosity with free, easily accessible and anonymous examples of what sex is. Herein lies the problem. The internet, like a big bad Wikipedia, doesn't sort the good from the bad and ugly. Children may be turning to the web for information. What they're getting, though, is an unsorted cornucopia of images that need us adults to help them understand.

I can't blame kids for searching. And if 55% of them are admitting to doing so, then we had better accept that viewing sexually explicit websites has become an almost normal rite of passage for our children, especially boys. But are children today that different from us adults who were sneaking in to our parents' bedrooms and finding copies of Penthouse stashed in the bottom drawer of our father's bedside table? I'll admit, those images I saw, and that my brother tried to explain to me, were a confusing jumble of strange poses and weird anatomy.

It comes down to an adult helping to decipher sexual code. I for one want to have conversations with my children about sex and to be sure they have the chance to see images that aren't exploitive of human bodies. I have no issue with them reading books about their bodies, or even viewing movies that have sexual content appropriate to their age.

Without more research, however, we won't know if visiting pornographic websites increases children's risky sexual activities or if kids who are already experimenting seek out these sites out of curiosity. Either way, our kids need the facts.

I can recall a recent effort by one of the local school boards where I live to introduce into the grade 7 curriculum rather explicit and frank discussions of sex in the form of a manual. I chuckled when I heard the School Board Superintendent say on the radio that he was opposed to the information being shared. "I've been married forty years," he said, "and there are things in that manual that I didn't even know."

Shame isn't it? That no one took the time to fully explain sex to him, much less to make sure he had the information that his students may need. Just because the Superintendent isn't thinking about anal sex or multiple partners, doesn't mean his students aren't. It's a lesson for us parents too. Just because something isn't in our repertoire, doesn't mean it might not be in the thoughts of our kids.

Should kids view online porn? Absolutely not. Images of exploitation are not a healthy way to educate our children. But should our children have access to explicit sexual content that educates? Should they be able to view erotic material that matches their stage of psychosexual development? I would have to say yes, because one way or the other, they will go looking for what they need. I think it is better if along the way we help them navigate their way to a healthy, safe expression of their sexuality. Simply denying them access to the information they need isn't going to satisfy their curiosity, nor is it going to keep them safe. It wasn't an effective strategy when I was growing up. It makes no sense to keep repeating the mistakes of generations past.

So, teach your kids about sex in age appropriate ways. Expose them to websites where healthy discussions about sexuality take place. You might feel uncomfortable, but your children will be much safer for your efforts.

Here's three sites to get you started:

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