The Other Talk Parents Avoid: Pornography

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The Checkup

Many of us find internet pornography an awkward topic to discuss at all, let alone with our children.

But pretty much every expert thinks that it’s an essential conversation parents should have with their children. Whatever filters you install on phones, laptops and other technology, whatever limits you may set on how and when and where children use their devices, children still need open and ongoing conversations with their parents about the sexually explicit images and information they may encounter online.

Preteenagers may stumble across images they find disturbing, or may be deliberately shown such images by other kids. Adolescents may have their attitudes toward sex and relationships shaped by the unrealities of pornography. And there’s the possibility that some kids may be drawn to pornography to such an extent that it may disrupt their real-life relationships and their lives.

Research on how pornography influences teenagers is limited; parents may not want their children asked these questions, and many of the studies are based on the recollections of college students.

And the same experts who trace associations between pornography and certain attitudes and behaviors caution that the pornography exposure has not been shown to cause those behaviors. “The use of pornography is related to more permissive sexual attitudes, the occurrence of sexual intercourse, and greater experience with casual sex behavior,” Jochen Peter, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and the lead author on a 2016 review article in the Journal of Sex Research, which looked at 20 years of research on adolescents and pornography, wrote in an email. “Most probably, it thus works both ways: For example, teenagers with more permissive attitudes tend to use porn, and that may reinforce these attitudes.”

The age of first exposure to sexually explicit content is around 13, said Bryant Paul, an associate professor in the media school at Indiana University. This has remained relatively steady since the 1990s, he said, even as more and more explicit material has become available online.

“I think sometimes we overassume how sophisticated our kids are,” said Michele Ybarra, an expert on technology-related health issues and the president and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif. “Some kids are quite naïve and can be overwhelmed by pictures they weren’t expecting.”

She said both parents and children may be uncomfortable talking specifically about the content but can talk about the ways that sex is part of a relationship, the ways that people should treat one another or the ways that pornography is not an accurate representation of sexual behavior.

Violent pornography is a particular concern, both because the images may be especially disturbing, and misleading, and also because there is some research to show that those adolescents who regularly watch violent pornography are at higher risk for committing acts of sexual violence, Dr. Ybarra said. But once again, the link is an association, not a statement about cause and effect. Kids exposed to nonviolent pornography have no increased association with sexual violence.

How can we help equip our children to handle what they come across online and remind them that they can come to us if they’re troubled by what they see?

“Tone matters,” said James P. Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media. “I would say, hey, whether you’ve experienced it or not, whether you’ve seen this or not, it’s out there and I know it might be uncomfortable, but I want to talk to you about the images.”

And it helps to start having these conversations early, so that your children know they can come to you if something upsets them, and you have to make it clear that you won’t be shocked or angry at them.

“We do find substantial proportions of preteens get exposed to sexual images in an unwanted way and girls particularly find it disturbing,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

When adolescents do go looking for sexually explicit material, part of their motivation may be curiosity about how sex happens and what it looks like.

“I would tell parents to frame it as, ‘I would prefer it if you would explore your sexuality in other ways,’” said Mona Malacane, an assistant instructor at the media school of Indiana University, whose research focuses on media and adolescents’ sexual socialization, as well as parent mediation. But she said parents need to acknowledge the likelihood that kids may find their way around filters and restrictions.

It can help to build conversations about pornography on earlier discussions with children about what they see on their screens. “If you have a foundation of media literacy, what you see in advertisements isn’t real, people who get hurt in movies or TV aren’t really hurt or killed, then when sexual content starts to come up, it’s so much easier,” Dr. Paul said. You can say to your children, “they’re acting, they make it look like these things are pleasurable, but they may not be pleasurable.”

It’s especially important for boys to hear their fathers’ voices on this subject, Dr. Finkelhor said, to reassure them that their curiosity is normal, and to help them understand that there are risks.

“Some people do get addicted to pornography, and that can be difficult to recover from and can interfere with other activities and relationships,” Dr. Finkelhor said. “We don’t really know a lot about who’s vulnerable to that.”

But the data on adolescent sexual behavior are reassuring. “Most of the indicators about sexual risk-taking have actually been moving in a very positive direction over the past 20 years,” he said. Dr. Finkelhor cited sharp decreases in arrests of teenagers for sexual assault and aggression, national surveys showing decreased reports of sexual victimization among teenagers, and significant declines in the number of teenagers who say they have had four or more sexual partners. And teen birthrates have been dropping to record lows.

While there is no known direct connection here to internet pornography, these indicators are showing improvements, rather than deterioration, in the choices and decisions that adolescents have been making. And we can hope these improvements reflect a certain amount of effective communication and education by adults, as well as good sense on the part of the adolescents themselves.