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How to Talk to Children About Porn

Strategies for a more effective conversation.

Key points

  • Young people have always watched porn; the difference today is greater availability and access.
  • When speaking to a child or teenager about porn, it’s important for parents to be open, honest, accurate, and supportive.
  • Parents should also aim to be non-judgmental and avoid introducing or heightening shame around porn and sex.

It is fairly normal for children, tweens, and teens to discover and look at porn. This has been true for decades and decades. What is different and much more complicated is the fact that young people have much more access 24 hours a day to pornographic material due to increasingly available technology and social media.

Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash

It's important to put this in the context for young people of exploring sexuality and sexual behavior, as it is perfectly normal. Human beings are indeed sexual beings.

So, when approaching a child, tween, or teen about this, it is crucial to do so in an open, non-judgmental way, and in a way that does not heighten shame. Initiating this conversation can be tricky and it's important for children to not feel "caught" doing something "bad," so they don't come to see pleasure as punishing.

So much about sex and sexuality is cloaked in shame, and as adults in our children's lives we need to be mindful of not further contributing to this. One way to do this is to normalize the exploratory aspect and the qualities of discovery and pleasure. When sex education exists in schools, it is typically merely focused on the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and talked about in terms of morality, danger and pain. Reframing the narrative to include pleasure is helpful and serves to remove some of the shame.

That said, the stark reality is that for boys, porn has become a major source of sex education and socialization. Porn is often very unhealthy as it can lead people to have trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality, to have unrealistic expectations of others and themselves, to intensify body image problems, and to objectify others. And some porn is quite aggressive and violent. The premise of most porn exaggerates dominance and submission, and this is an unhealthy idea to have instilled in people at such a young age. Porn also plays into lots of stereotypes related to gender, race, class, and sexual orientation and this is harmful for young, vulnerable, developing minds. Helping younger people see and question these difficult dimensions is essential.

It is all too possible and easy for young people to consume hours and hours of porn a day. It is important to use the word "consume" instead of "watch" because watching implies something more passive and consuming shows how this material is metabolized. When porn is that readily available and accessible it creates the false notion that girls and women in particular are always ready for sex and exist for boys' and men's pleasure. When girls watch this, they often see that girls' and women's pleasure is second to boys and men.

One of my favorite young people is a woman who will be 25 years old in the spring. I have known her since she was born. I recall that when she was a very little girl she saw a book about secrets on our coffee table and she started flipping through it for the pictures. Suddenly, she turned to me and asked, “What is masturbination?” It was an adorable remake of the word masturbation, and I remember how her older brother looked at me and laughed with a knowing glance of, okay, how are you going to explain this one to her? And in the most age-appropriate and matter-of-fact way I knew, I defined it for her. Nonplussed, within a few minutes she just wanted more candy. In that moment, I felt a bit giggly with her brother but tried to mute that as best as I could, and I was a little nervous to present the information properly.

I quickly came to see how that conversation gave way to plenty more talks about sexuality, objectification, and intimacy with her. If the message I left her with when she was a little girl conveyed that she could ask me anything and I would promise to respond in as honest and direct a way as possible, then that’s all that matters. It’s hard, but totally worth it, to show up as the adult to whom questions can be asked and explored, and where trustworthy, accurate and supportive answers are guaranteed.

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