Question: I have recently discovered that my 13-year-old son is watching pornography on his tablet. As a mum, I was initially a bit shocked to think he was doing that, but I am realistic about what teenage boys might do and I have tried to handle it well without over-shaming him. I have sat down and explained how porn is not 'real sex' or in anyway loving and I have explained the truth behind how the images are produced (exploiting women etc).
I have also introduced rules in the house of no tablet use in his bedroom and told him I will be checking his usage etc. I was wondering about installing blocking software, but I know this is not totally effective (especially when he is in friends' houses and can look at their tablets). I'm not sure what else to do.
I know men looking at pornography is normal enough, but he is so young and I don’t want to make him feel bad about his sexuality. However, I am worried that viewing porn at such a young age might mess up his expectations of sex or that he might starting looking at all the extreme stuff online etc.
Answer: With the widespread usage of smartphones and tablets, children and teenagers are accessing and viewing pornography more frequently than ever before. A generation ago it was quite difficult for a teenager to view pornography whereas now it is only two clicks away on their computer. Of great concern is how the age children are viewing pornography is getting younger and younger, as well as how easy it is for them to view extreme and violent material online.
No one fully knows the full implications of this increased access to pornography on individual teenagers or on society as a whole. Certainly, there is a growth in pornography addiction and related sexual dysfunction. Relationship counselling agencies report a huge increase in couples seeking help where pornography is a major problem in their relationship. While you may not wish to be overly repressive, parents are right to be concerned about their teenagers accessing porn and other unsuitable material online.
Reading your question, you are already doing a lot of things right in helping your son. You are right to not want to shame him and his sexuality but also you are right to protect him from viewing things at too young an age and to encourage him to understand porn critically when he does come across it.
Your son’s age
Just like there is a legal age of 18 for drinking alcohol, so there is the same legal age for viewing pornography online. While realistically a teenage boy may view it younger than this (much like they might view an 18s movie at 16 etc), the legal age remains a good guideline. Certainly, it means that 13 is too young and gives you permission to say to your son: “Listen pornography and these sites are only meant to be viewed by adults; I want you keep away from them altogether until you are older.” Even if you can restrict your son’s access for a few years, it will be worth it, as a 16-year-old is more emotionally mature to deal with pornography and to understand it critically.
While restricting or blocking access is not fool-proof, it is part of the solution for young teenagers. Having good rules such as no smartphones in the bedroom or the wi-fi being turned off at night is very sensible. In addition, it is helpful to let young teenagers know you are monitoring their usage (you can revise this rule once they are older and more mature). There are lots of software and hardware options for restricting and monitoring internet usage if you do a search online.
Supporting your son
Responding in an understanding way to your son is important. If you are angry or judgmental then this might leave him feeling shamed and unsure of his sexuality. Certainly, such a reaction will do nothing to stop him being interested in porn but will stop him talking to you about it. Instead, it is important to respond in an understanding way by acknowledging how it is normal (especially as a teenage boy) to be attracted and excited by sexual images and to want to view them. As you are already doing, it is important to explain to him the problems about porn (how it is fantasy and not reality, how it can objectify women etc). A good way to approach the conversation is to ask him what he thinks of the images he has seen. This way you are encouraging him to be critical of porn himself, rather than simply telling him about it.
These conversations are of course sensitive and delicate to get right. Often it is best if both parents talk to him separately about it. That way, he will get both a male and female perspective. If you are parenting alone and his father is not involved, then you could consider another family member talking to him.
Talking through the issues
The most important goal is to talk through the issues with your son, as ultimately he will have to self-regulate and make his own decisions about pornography. You want him to understand the dangers of porn (addiction, scams, illegal and violent material, confused messages about consent etc) and to know he can always come to you if he is worried about something (being reassured you will try to listen and be non-judgmental). In the long term, you want him to learn to treat women and sexual partners with respect and to know what a loving consensual sexual relationship means.
If you need more information, there are lots of great resources out there such as webwise.ie, including a video on Childline that challenges the myths of pornography (search for Porn: Fantasy vs Reality) that you could consider watching together.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will deliver parenting and professional workshops on helping children overcome anxiety in Dublin on April 13th and 20th 2018. See solutiontalk.ie for details.