The Most Uncomfortable Parenting Conversation You Haven’t Had

Friday, June 16th, 2023 3:06 pm

Advice for parents who want to talk to their kids about pornography.

By Dr. Erika Bocknek, researcher, university professor, and family therapist

Let’s face it: parenting is frequently uncomfortable. One day you are playing dress-up with a tiny newborn who wants little more than to snuggle, eat, and sleep. The next day (it seems) you are answering ALL the questions. Why do boogers taste like taffy? What is that one dog doing to that other dog over there? How EXACTLY did you two make a baby? Often, you theoretically have the answers in the sense that you know some facts that are relevant, and, still, you aren’t sure what you are supposed to say. As a family therapist and expert in children’s mental health and development, I field this question from parents on the daily: How do I talk to my kid about…

Unfortunately, the convo that most parents don’t have until they find out they have to is, perhaps, the most uncomfortable convo of all: What are those people doing on my screen? The reason? Most kids won’t ask. This one takes a little bit of a pre-convo.

Common Sense Media recently completed a study showing that more than half of children (1,358 demographically representative youth completed surveys) have seen pornography on the internet by the time they are 13 years old; the average age reported is 12 years old. The majority of respondents said they saw it accidentally (for example, accidentally clicking on a pop-up ad), while the kids who say they watch it intentionally (44% of respondents) were likely to watch it more than once a week.

Forty-one percent of respondents reported seeing pornography during the school day. Most teens reported seeing aggressive or violent pornography, and few teens (only 1 in 3) reported seeing pornography that included a show of consent. Here’s some good news: most teens are aware that what they are seeing is not an accurate depiction of sex in real life, but still many report believing that these images give some good educational information about sex.

As a parent, before you can have a good convo with your child about pornography, you’ve got to get your own values straight and grow your own base of knowledge. What are potential negative impacts of internet porn? What do you know about potential internet resources for healthy sexuality development? Answering these two questions for yourself is key.

Let’s start with the first, and the reason we worry. Research has long shown a link between children’s mental wellness and exposure to pornography. This is especially true for girls, who are likely to view images including those that depict unhealthy body image, female objectification, and violence against women as well as that which is marketed towards men and thus does not give girls an understanding of their own sexuality and pleasure. Boys may be less impacted in some ways, but research has consistently shown an association between pornography use among boys and men and their own aggression and violence towards women.

There is also a complex, bidirectional relationship such that children who are already showing red flags for depression and anxiety may try to “escape” through porn use, which can amplify mental health problems, thus creating a vicious cycle that is similar to other addictive behaviors. In general, exposure to pornography on the internet often leads to confusion about healthy sex and sexuality, the belief that one must behave certain ways during sexual activity, and a lack of emotional intimacy with partners as youth mature.

However, this part is important, too. Children who report that they learn things about sex from viewing porn are not wrong. There are few places that many children feel they can explore their understanding of sex and sexuality, and they are highly likely to turn to the internet. This is especially true for youth who identify and/or are questioning their gender or sexual identities as different from heteronormative and cisgendered cultures in which they are being raised. 

However, the tricky thing about this topic is that it is less likely to just come up as do many other of those uncomfortable convos. Children will unabashedly ask you to explain exactly HOW their little sister came out of your body at her birth. They may even shyly tell you about a first kiss or let you in to help them if they are being bullied at school. It is less common for your preteen to openly wonder at the dinner table if the act depicted in the video they stumbled on that day involving two people they do not know hurts as much as it looks like it did. Largely because you have not proven to them you will answer the question. And, let’s be honest – you may even sort of wish this never comes up.

Let’s power on if we can, though. What is a modern parent to do? Many of the negative effects of pornography dissipate when youth have meaningful and informative convos with loving adults in real life. So, here we are…back to the ol’ discomfort of being a parent. By now, I am sure you find those old convos about boogers and dogs getting busy at the park quaint. The similarities between this uncomfortable conversation and all of the others serves as the foundation.

Invest in a healthy, trusting relationship with your child by being present, showing lots of love and interest, consistently maintaining expectations with kindness and clarity, and maintaining a curious stance as much as possible when they open up to you. That foundation goes a long way as you and your child navigate this one, together.

Your first step is to be honest. I want to talk to you about something that isn’t easy for me to discuss, and you may be uncomfortable, too. But I know it’s important that we talk about it.

Second, give your child your “why.” Having access to the internet means being exposed to a big world and lots of people in it, and it’s important to me that you know I am here to talk to you about things that you may have questions about.

Now, you give them the “what.” I want to talk to you about porn. If you haven’t seen it already, you may end up seeing it, whether you want to or not, at some point. By that I mean, images or videos of people on the internet who are naked or nearly naked, and they may be [use the language that is familiar in your family to describe physical affection of this nature…it’s easiest if you use the word sex.] What’s most important to me that you know is that what you will see on the internet is not likely to show you what sex is like in real life. It’s likely to show people behaving in ways that can even be aggressive, harmful, or violent. You may be uncomfortable seeing it, or you may feel curious or even interested.

Finally, be honest again – about what matters. I know you won’t always want to talk to me about these kinds of things, and that’s ok, too. I’d love to help you identify some other people who you can talk to about these things.

You can make this a single convo, mini convos with breathing room, and you can add to it over time with your own values and feelings about the subject. In fact, the more you show up as a human with your own feelings and beliefs, the more your child may be encouraged to show up, too. Once your child has their own phone, you will also want to talk with them about sexting and sharing naked photos (spoiler alert: never do it). But this is the thing about parenting…there’s always time for more truly uncomfortable convos in the years to come.

Parenting Pro Tip: Buy a copy of You Know, Sex by Cory Silverberg and keep it in an accessible location.

Dr. Erika Bocknek is a researcher, university professor, family therapist, and mom of 3. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed research papers and has written articles for parents that have been seen in PBS Newshour, Marketwatch, and the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Editor’s Note (06/16/2023): This article has been updated since publication.

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