‘My 12-year-old son is looking up porn. What should I do?’

Ask the Expert: ‘A classmate showed it to him at a party, should I tell the boy’s parents?’

Acknowledge that is normal to be excited by and drawn to look at porn, but then encourage him to critically evaluate what he might witness online. Photograph: iStock

Acknowledge that is normal to be excited by and drawn to look at porn, but then encourage him to critically evaluate what he might witness online. Photograph: iStock

 

Question: My 12-year-old son has always been a well-behaved mannerly boy. He has been asking us for a smartphone and we have said no, at least not until he has started secondary school next September. It seems a lot of his schoolmates and friends have phones already and that is where the pressure is coming from.

He has supervised access to a computer at home where he plays games and watches YouTube and we have parent monitoring software on it. Last week I got an alert on the software that he was looking up “sex” and “porn” and it makes me worried. When I asked him about it he was mortified – it seems some of his classmates were looking at porn and showing it to others at a party. I am a bit shocked by it all, as they are so young.

I don’t know whether to raise it with their parents. My son was hysterical when I told him I might have to do this. What message should I give my son about this? I told him that porn is not real, loving sex (he knows the facts of life) and he should not look at these things until he is 18.

What do you think?

Answer: With the widespread use of smartphones children are now witnessing pornography and violent material at younger and younger ages. In surveys many children report coming across this material before their 12th birthday. This is, indeed, a tragedy as witnessing such material at young ages can interfere with their normal sex education and development. As children start puberty they may be very drawn to and excited by watching such material, yet they do not have the maturity to critically evaluate what they are watching. Your email highlights how, even when parents take steps to protect their children, they can never fully supervise. You did well to delay smartphone use and to install safety software on other devices in order to supervise his access. But even then it is hard to protect your children from coming across material from the unsupervised access of their peers.

Should you tell the other parents?

I would think it is important to tell the other parents. Put yourself in their situation. Would you want to know if your 12 year old was showing porn to other children on his phone? They may not know this is happening and if they find out they can take steps to better supervise or restrict their child’s access, and talk through all the safety issues. It is understandable that your son is nervous about telling in case he is identified as the “person who told”, so it is a delicate conversation to get right. You might want to ring the other parents and talk to them in person to explain this. To a certain extent your son’s safety depends on his peer group. If all the parents of the children in his peer group agree to supervise access to the internet, then this will keep them all safer and delay them from coming across unsuitable material until they are older and more able to deal with it.

While it has become the norm to give children and teenagers smartphones at young ages perhaps this does not have to be the case. Given the risks of unsupervised access, it is perfectly possible to give young teenagers phones that aren’t smartphones which allow them to text and make calls but have limited access to the internet. This might be a better way to protect them when they are young. This would require a cultural shift and is perhaps a wider societal conversation that we all need to be having. Both parents and schools have a role to play in establishing new safer norms.

Continue to talk through the issues with your son

Of course, only supervising your son’s access is not to going to protect him in the long term. As he becomes older, you also want to help him critically evaluate the internet for himself and learn to make his own best decisions. When we give children and teenagers access to the internet, we have to be prepared to talk through all the challenges it brings. This includes explaining cyberbullying, porn, sexting, hateful content and fake news, as well as how addictive the internet can be and how unrealistically life can be presented (making them feel inadequate and anxious etc). These are ongoing conversations to have throughout their teenage years as they get older and gain more access to the internet.

You have started your conversation with your son and it is important that you are prepared to continue it and keep the lines of communication open between you. When talking about sex and porn with your son, it is important not to shame his natural sexual curiosity and interest (as this will close down the conversation and stop him coming to you for help). Acknowledge that it is normal to be excited by and drawn to look at porn, but then encourage him to critically evaluate what he might witness online. A good way to approach these conversations is to first ask him what he thinks before you give your own guidance.

Such conversations give you an opportunity to discuss consent and the importance of treating people with respect in relationships. In addition, it is best if both parents are involved in these conversations as then children get the different perspective of both their father and mother as well as the support of two concerned adults.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will be delivering a number of parenting workshops in Dublin and Cork in the new year. See solutiontalk.ie for details

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