The Stats Are Clear, Kids Know About Porn. Here's How To Talk About It

A majority of kids have seen some porn by the age of 13 and it's our responsibility to acknowledge that.

Many parents of today’s teens and tweens came of age in a pre-digital era, when pornographic videos had to be purchased in seedy stores and magazines meant for adults got stuffed under mattresses. Our exposure to these images came in snippets, our access limited.

Kids have always been curious about sex and have sought information from sources they knew were prohibited. But the ease of access and the vast quantity of material available to today’s youth are unprecedented. Most kids will eventually find porn even if they don’t go looking for it.

“This is an extraordinary issue in our country for young people today,” James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, tells HuffPost.

“The vast majority of teens and preteens are being exposed to pornography regularly and early on in their lives. You see kids as young as nine and 10 who are regularly using it. They’re accessing it at school,” Steyer says.

Common Sense Media, an organisation that reviews media and provides guidance to parents, has released new data on kids’ access to porn, and the message is clear: This is not an issue that parents should ignore, and in order to be proactive, we’re going to need to start early.

When are kids exposed to porn?

In the Common Sense survey of 1,348 kids, ages 13 to 17, 73% reported having seen pornography by age 17 – 54% said they had seen it by age 13, and 15% by age 10.

The average age at which a child first viewed pornography was 12 – 58% of respondents said they had seen porn accidentally, and 44% admitted to seeking it out.

Cisgender boys were more likely to have accessed porn than cisgender girls, as were kids who identified as LGBTQ+.

It’s possible that LGBTQ+ young people sometimes use pornography to explore their identities, as they were also more likely to report using porn to “to find out what arouses and excites them.”

Kids were split on how true porn is to real life, with 45% saying that porn gives them “helpful” information about sex – although only 27% agreed that porn “accurately shows the way most people have sex.”

Violence, lack of consent, and gender and racial stereotypes in porn are major concerns – 52% of kids who had viewed pornography said they had seen “what appears to be rape, choking, or someone in pain.” Only 33% reported seeing someone asking for consent before sexual activity and, worryingly, 21% of 16- and 17-year olds who had seen porn agreed that “most people like to be hit during sex.”

Pornography “can include really objectionable role models and behaviour,” says Steyer, particularly for young male viewers.

There’s more than just gender bias: 25% percent of Black respondents reported feeling “disgusted,” and 21% of Black respondents said they felt “self-conscious” about the way people who look like them were depicted in porn.

Clearly, if we don’t step in and start having these conversations with our kids, porn is going to answer their questions for them – and it’s simply not up to the job.

As tempting as it is to command our children to never watch porn, it ignores the reality that they are going to encounter it one way or another. If we simply tell them that porn is bad, they might feel like they are bad for having watched it, especially if they experienced feelings of arousal.

How can parents toe this line while teaching kids that the world of porn does not reflect what most healthy sexual relationships look like?

Start having these conversations early

As soon as your kids are using electronic devices without constant adult supervision, you should bring up the subject.

“With young kids, you don’t need to use the word ‘porn.’ You can simply say, ‘You need to tell me if you ever see pictures or videos of naked people on your screen,’” sex educator Ellen Friedrichs, author of Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World, tells HuffPost.

You want kids to know that you understand they may be exposed to these images by accident, that they won’t be in trouble and that they can come to you when it happens.

Paediatric psychologist and parenting coach Ann-Louise Lockhart tells HuffPost that any of the following milestones offer parents an opportunity to talk about sex and/or porn: “going to camp, first sleepover, getting a phone/computer, online access.”

With older kids, Friedrichs explains, “you can get into more detail and explain that any time they encounter a website that requires them to be 18, that is likely porn and that porn is typically the depiction of people having sex with another person, or images of a naked person whose main job is to excite someone rather than educate them.”

Use parental controls, but don’t rely on them to protect your kids from exposure

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you’ve set parental controls on their device, your job is done. Kids can run into pornographic content on social media, when opening emails or when browsing online. They also may be exposed to porn on a friend’s device. Since kids report accessing pornographic content even from heavily restricted school devices, we know that there’s no way to guarantee a porn-free online experience.

Assume that at some point your kids will see something you’d rather they didn’t. Prepare them for this moment beforehand.

Keep it brief and be direct

Lockhart suggests that “the conversation can start with a simple script: ‘There are so many images and videos out there. You might see images and videos about sex or people having sex. You might feel curious, uncomfortable or scared. If this happens, you can always talk to me about it.’”

Your child may be as anxious as you are when you bring it up, but even if they don’t have much to add the first time you broach the topic, let them know that you’re there to answer their questions.

Encourage them to be critical

As with any media, including shows or movies you might choose to watch together, teach kids to be aware of dangerous gender and racial stereotypes.

You might ask an older teen, “What audience do you think most porn is made for? How do you think that affects the kind of porn that is made?” suggests Friedrichs.

When discussing any film or show that portrays sex, she says you might ask: “Do you think people of all genders are held to the same standards of attractiveness? What is the difference?”

And, “Do you think that there are double standards about sex that impact people of different genders differently?”
You can ask about consent, too, and point out positive examples of a partner asking for consent when you’re viewing movies or shows together.

Don’t cast judgement

Let kids know that porn websites are only for people 18 and older, but don’t act shocked or horrified when they tell you they’ve seen porn. Both accidental exposure and seeking out information to fulfill their curiosity are normal.

Whether it happened accidentally or on purpose, you don’t want them to feel ashamed for seeing the images or even for being excited by them. And if they sense your judgment, they’ll be less likely to come to you with questions or concerns in the future.

Explain that porn is neither realistic nor educational

Let kids know that, as with many images and videos, what they’re seeing online isn’t a fair representation of real life. Porn is designed to arouse people, not to educate them. Encourage them to come to you or other trusted adults when they have questions.

“I think one of the best ways to counteract some of the concerning impacts of porn is through comprehensive sex education at home and in schools, and to stress that while there is nothing wrong with being curious about sex and what it looks like, porn is not sex education,” Friedrichs says.

If you’re looking for help talking to your kids about sex, the following websites may be useful resources: Planned Parenthood, AMAZE, Sex Positive Families and PFLAG.

Know that this will not be one conversation, but many

“The ‘sex’ talk should happen early and often as your child matures and becomes more aware of themselves and others,” Lockhart says.

A series of short conversations will likely be more effective and less awkward for you and your child. Rather than sitting your child down to talk about porn and then checking it off your list and forgetting about it, think of these conversations as planting different seeds: consent, respect, realistic expectations.

You’ll want to revisit these topics through the years, answering new questions your child may have and guiding them to reliable resources.