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The Birds, the Bees, and Pornography: Talking to Children About Sexually Explicit Online Content

by Alex St. Jacques


The Internet is an incredible thing. Information on nearly any topic and the ability to connect with just about anyone no matter time or location is simply at our fingertips. During the pandemic, Internet access has become increasingly more important for maintaining connection with family, friends, and even coworkers. Over the course of the past few decades, the Internet has transformed classrooms. Students of all ages can now access class materials and resources like articles, videos, pictures, and podcasts to supplement what they are learning. However, this widespread access to the Internet also means that children can easily access pornographic and sexually explicit content.


Finding Pornographic Materials Online


Children are getting earlier and earlier access to the Internet. By 4 months old, most children have started interacting with digital media and by age 4, nearly all children have interacted with a mobile device (Horner, 2020). Children are also getting smartphones and devices at increasingly younger ages. By age 8, one in five American children have a smartphone of their own and by age 11, this number increases to half of all American children (Greene, 2019).


Access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and other devices provides a way for children and adolescents with easy access to pornography without parental knowledge. This ability to access porn without supervision can lead to children and adolescents searching for content they wouldn’t otherwise. Studies have reported that up to 40-90% of preteens have seen porn (Alexander, 2017; Vandenbosch, 2015; Brown, 2009). Children are even more likely to have viewed porn if they have Internet access on their phone or a computer in their room (Horner, 2020).

Children and adolescents can be exposed to online pornography unintentionally or intentionally. Unintentional exposure could include receiving unsolicited emails, clicking on pop-ups on websites, and spam emails. They also can look up words that have both sexual and nonsexual meanings depending on the context (e.g., “beaver” and “breast”) and get unintentional exposure that way. Intentional exposure entails actively searching online for pornographic or sexually explicit content. Children and adolescents may be searching out of curiosity about sex and the human body and in pursuit of arousing content. The Internet offers a private way to explore that may feel more comfortable.


Challenges with Pornography


The Internet has an endless supply of free pornography that often depict extreme forms of sexuality or even sexual violence. It can often be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection at any time of day or day of the week. Online porn can be extreme and violent in a lot of ways. It often depicts relationships that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes about dominating men and submissive women. These sexual relationships lack affection, intimacy, and even consent. Internet porn frequently displays choking, spanking, kicking, use of weapons, biting, derogatory name calling, and depictions of rape (Horner, 2020). It also typically focuses solely on the act of penetration (Gavrieli, 2013).


What Children and Adolescents Learn From Pornography


The challenge with this kind of content being available to children and adolescents is that they don’t always realize it’s fantasy. The combination of children’s brains still developing and growing up in a culture that provides little information on sexual relationships leads to porn becoming a source of information on what sex, sexuality, and relationships look like (Horner, 2020; Brown, 2009). Pornography is just fantasy, but children may not always be able to distinguish how porn and real life are different.


Porn can then become a source for scripts on how children and adolescents think sexual activity should go (Horner, 2020; Alexander, 2017). These scripts include aggression and violence, but lack affection or love. They promote sexual aggression, risky sexual practices, objectification of women, and enforcement of gender stereotypes. Seeing pornography as a child or preteen is also associated with problem sexualized behaviors such as engaging in intercourse or oral sex at an age younger than what would be expected at for a child’s age and level of development (Peter, 2006).

Conversations and Precautions


Because of its ease of access and consequences of exposure, conversations about sex, sexuality, and pornography should start happening sooner than we may think. It’s helpful to reflect on your own beliefs around sex and intimacy and what lessons you want the children in your life to walk away with before initiating conversations.


One way to start opening up communication with children about these topics is to ask them about their concept of private parts and bodily autonomy. This is a great a starting point for talking about what sex, sexuality, and intimacy can look like. An easy way to start open and honest conversations about pornography is to ask what children and adolescents are viewing online. You can ask if they have heard of pornography and what they think about it. Talk about what pornography is and stress that it is fantasy. It is made for entertainment and doesn’t reflect most people’s sexual activity. Real-life, loving, intimate, and respectful relationships can look very different from the relationships pornography depicts.


These conversations can feel awkward and uncomfortable for you and the children in your life, and that’s okay. The important thing is that you have these conversations in the first place. Acknowledging the potential discomfort can help you and your child feel more at ease when talking about sex and sexuality and their relationship with pornography. Conversations about pornography, sex, and relationships are not a “one and done” situation. They should happen regularly as children grow and develop into adulthood.

You can also take some precautions with children’s access to technology and the Internet. This can look like taking phones and technology away at bedtime and limiting the amount of time children spend online. There is also preventative software and parental controls that can help filter, block, and monitor the content children are accessing.


Being too restrictive can make adolescents and older children less open to talking. Maintain an open mind as you talk to children and create a dialogue about their experiences and beliefs and your own.


Ultimately, the Internet brings new challenges to raising children and adolescents even as it offers nearly limitless opportunities and resources. Online pornography is problematic in multiple ways, but there are ways we can help children navigate potential exposure. Through guidance and open and honest conversation, we can empower children to understand the online content they’re exposed to and the kinds of relationships that feel safe, loving, and comfortable to them.


References

  1. Alexander, M. [Give The Talk]. (2017, May 23). Porn star gives parents “the talk” [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3GG_aqIy04

  2. Brown, J. D., & L’Engle, K. L. (2009). X-Rated: Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors Associated With U.S. Early Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Media. Communication Research, 36(1), 129–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650208326465

  3. Gavrieli, R. [TEDx Talks]. (2013, Oct 26). Why I stopped watching porn | Ran Gavrieli | TEDxJaffa [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRJ_QfP2mhU

  4. Greene, D. (2019, Oct 29). Report: More than half of U.S. children now own a smartphone by age 11 [Radio Broadcast Transcript]. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/29/774306250/report-more-than-half-of-u-s-children-now-own-a-smartphone-by-age-11

  5. Horner, G. (2020). Child and adolescent pornography exposure. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, (34)2, 191-199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedhc.2019.10.001

  6. Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2006). Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material on the Internet. Communication Research, 33(2), 178–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650205285369

  7. Vandenbosch, Laura. (2015). Antecedents of adolescents’ exposure to different types of sexually explicit Internet material: A longitudinal study. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 439–448. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.04.032

  8. Zaloom, S. (2020). Kids are watching pornography. Here’s how to talk about it. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/10/well/family/children-pornhub.html


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