Talking to teens about pornography

It can be hard to always be there to help guide your teen as they navigate increasing independence, their identity, friendships and intimate relationships. Let’s face it, some teens may look to pornography as a way to learn about sex, without having to have an awkward conversation with a parent.

There is a risk that the messages pornography teaches can harm a teen’s sense of self, damage relationships, be unhelpful for positive relationships, affect their psychological well-being and cause (in some cases) dangerous experimentation leading to health risks and even medical emergencies.

Father and his teenage son smiling

How to have the conversation

Maintaining trust between you and your teen is vital when discussing sensitive topics like pornography. When talking with your teen, remember that attempts to control their thinking or behaviour could result in them closing up and becoming defensive. They may ignore you, and possibly even do the opposite of what you suggest. The “My house, my rules” dialogue might squash trust.

Use the following conversation tips to get the ball rolling with your teen.

Two teenage boys looking at a mobile phoneAsk: I want to talk with you about one of those awkward topics. Is that ok? (they rarely say "no", but if they do, respect that, and then set up a time where you can talk.)

Ask: Are kids at school looking at pornography? Do they talk about it?

Ask: Have you ever seen it? If they answer yes, ask, "Did someone show it to you? Or did you find it yourself?" If they found it themselves, find out what made them seek it and ask how it made them feel. Focus more on feelings and less on what they actually saw.

Reassure your teen they are not in trouble, and then find out what you can about the circumstances. Also note that if you know they have been exposed to (or are viewing) pornography, it is best to tell them what you know rather than getting mad at them for lying. Any conversation is likely to be ineffective if you are upset and they are defensive.

Describe: If you think your teen has been viewing pornography regularly, help them understand their response to it. You could explain how the brain releases chemicals that make us feel good if we see something we like. Because we like how the chemical reaction in our brain feels, we might keep repeating the behaviour.

Ask: Have you seen your friends talking about wanting to copy things they have seen online?

You might also ask whether they have seen others being affected by viewing pornography. Some people experience lowered self-esteem, or have unhealthy relationships with their boy/girlfriend as a result of wanting to have ‘porn-inspired’ experiences.

Discourage them from viewing it. You may wish to help their understanding by using resources that focus on relationships recommended by their teacher or school counsellor.

Ask your teen how they feel about your request that they avoid viewing pornography, and then work together to find ways to reduce the chance of seeing explicit content online. Options might include asking them to avoid certain sites that are known to contain pornographic content, avoiding keywords in searches that might lead to explicit material, and avoiding certain searches on google images. Reduce temptation by, as far as practicable, using devices in open areas at home and keeping doors open.

You might wish to use technology to help restrict access, such as ensuring that safe-search options are selected on devices, setting rules for screen time and time of use and installing parental controls that can block access to adult sites. If you want to do this, talk to your teen first so that you maintain open lines of communication and trust.

Reassure: Let them know it's always ok to talk with you if they have questions or concerns.

The even-more-serious stuff

There are some additional, important topics you may wish to go over with your teen. Expand on them in your conversations based on your teen's interest, responsiveness, maturity, and exposure to pornography.

Nudes / Naked SelfiesFemale teen sitting on footpath using her mobile phone

This is an important topic to discuss but quite a sensitive one. One great strategy to use is to discuss the impact of sending naked selfies in general, or related to another teen.

Ask your teen if they have been asked to send (or have sent) nude images. Ask how that has worked out for friends and others. Has it been shared beyond the trusted relationship? What would happen if it got out? How would it affect reputations?

Ask if they have ever received nude images. Find out if they regard this as pornography. Explain that while your concern for them is mostly about safety, reputation management, and protecting them from harm − there are also legal issues to consider. In most Australian states it is pornography. If it were found, your teen could be charged with the creation and distribution of child exploitation material and be charged with sex offences. They could also be placed on the sex offender register.

Lessons from Pornography vs. Real Life

What we see in pornography rarely represents what we’d like to experience in real life. The following topics can provide food for thought for your teen

Consent, respect and safety

Talk to your teen about the importance of always having permission to touch, hug, or kiss another person. Pornography often provides graphic illustrations that teach the opposite. In short, pornography is not real life.

Help them understand that if someone says "no", they should respect that decision. And if your child says “no”, they should make sure their “no” is heard and not argued with as a “perhaps” or a “yes”. Also let them know that consent can be removed at any time, so it is ok to say “no” after saying “yes” earlier.

Teach them that disrespect, violence and abuse are not ok, and that they are responsible for their own safety and being respectful towards others.

Pornography can sometimes portray violence and unrealistic notions of sexual relationships. It may teach that group sex and anal sex is what everyone wants. Important lessons about sexual safety (such as using condoms) are often absent. Help teens recognise that what they see in pornography is rarely safe, and intentionally pushes limits to offer increased arousal to viewers.

Intimacy in close relationships

Physical relationships are usually shared with someone special to us. Intimacy is about more than physical closeness. It is about emotional closeness, and building trust. These factors are often missing in pornographic images and video material. Talk to your teen about what this means for them and in their relationships.

Don’t be pressured

Explain that the actors appearing in pornography are being paid to show they are enjoying the sex. If our teens are in an intimate relationship, they should only do what they feel comfortable doing and avoid being pressured to do otherwise.

Body image

Explain that many actors in pornographic images and films have surgically "enhanced" bodies, such as breasts, vaginas, and penises. Drugs are sometimes used to maintain erections for abnormally long durations. Most people do not look like the actors in explicit videos, pictures or magazines.

Performance

Talk to your teen about the performance of actors. They are doing what they do for money. There are multiple takes of scenes and storylines are contrived. Most pornography is nothing more than fiction and make believe.

Wrapping it up

Two teenage boys using a computerYour conversation with younger teens will typically conclude with you asking your teen to avoid pornography, and discussing ways to ensure they do so.

Conversations with older teens are best if they are less about telling them what to do, and more focused on deferring to them. Sometimes, the harder you push, the more they might resist.

Consider asking:
“Where do you stand on viewing pornography?”
“Has this discussion changed the way you see it?”

It is a good idea to clearly set out your expectations and rules for the home. Reinforce that if they do see something they don’t understand, they can come and ask you about it − no topic is off limits.

Conversations around healthy sexuality set your teen up for more positive relationships, greater relationship satisfaction, and higher levels of wellbeing. If we are not talking with our teens about sex (and pornography), they may seek information from friends or the internet – and they may get the wrong information. They are curious. They do want to know.

If you have children under 8 years of age, see here for more ideas. And for tweens (8-12), try this article.

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