Why and how to talk to children about pornography

Porn can’t be ignored when it comes to teaching what is healthy and safe about sex

The internet and social media are now a normal part of established culture for young people growing up. For parents, this can bring a whole new level of concern as even with safety filters on devices, having access to the internet and the social media world makes it more likely that young people may come across and gain access to content that is sexually explicit.

Internet access and social media has changed the landscape for parents in many ways. When it comes to teaching young people about what is healthy and safe in relationships, as well as the issue of supporting young people’s individual sexual development, these aspects of parenting now point to the need for discussion around the issue of pornography.

Young people can accidently encounter sexually explicit material online or they can actively seek it out. And while secondary schools have an obligation to teach on the topic of relationships and sexuality, according to Mairead McNally of Loreto Secondary School, Balbriggan, there is no part of the curriculum that addresses pornography. It is useful for parents to think ahead about how to talk with young people about pornography.

Here are some reasons why young people could benefit from such talk:


1 Social media as a sexualised environment

The social media world and the internet

in general can become a sexualised environment quite quickly for some young people. For example, the young person may follow a celebrity online who posts sexually explicit selfies or content of themselves. This selfie culture can contribute to normalising the uploading of material that is sexually provocative or explicit, and it can inadvertently give young people the message that they must present themselves in a certain “sexual” way in order to be deemed of worth. The trend towards the sexualisation of the self can tend to glamorise the area of pornography.

2 Interest in sex

Wanting information about sex is normal and if young people are not getting

the message at home that they can ask questions and talk openly about sex, they may feel more inclined to access such information and pornography in order to find out for themselves what sex is about. Pornography is not real and yet young people viewing it can often think it is.

3 Pornography and beliefs about sex

A study in 2009 by Braun-Courville and Rojas found that the more frequently an adolescent is exposed to sexually explicit material, the more sexually permissive their attitude becomes.

With a more sexually permissive attitude, the young person becomes more likely to engage in sexual activity that is not safe. One important aspect of this relates to beliefs about consent. As pornography does not give a clear message about the necessity of consent, young people can end up confused or misinformed about the importance of this issue.

In Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (2012), the authors refer to this vast level of change adolescents are experiencing – at a cognitive, physical, emotional and sexual level – as a factor which makes young people more vulnerable to being harmed by exposure to pornography.

4 Body image

Sexual objectification can do a lot of harm to the sense of self worth. Pornography viewed without full understanding can misinform young people about how men and women “should” look as well as being portrayed only as sexual objects. This can be countered by providing young people with information about the process of objectification and about the fact that porn is not real life. This gives them a context for developing a good relationship with their own body and their own developing sexuality.

5 Expectations around sex

Exposure to pornography can be confusing and can unconsciously influence young people’s expectations about what sexual activity will entail.

They can believe girlfriends and boyfriends they have physical or sexual contact with are right to expect certain things from them in terms of their performance. This can put the young person at risk of feeling pressure to do things or act in a certain way.

This can have an impact on what expectations people have about what they and others will do sexually and how they should look. These types of expectations can be damaging as they are counter to the formation of relationships that are emotionally stable, safe and healthy.

Here are some tips to help get the conversations about pornography started:

1 View talking about pornography as an extension of talking about sex. Once young people know about sex, parents can say that if the young person has any further questions about sex as time goes on, they would be delighted to answer them. This openness to answering questions can be repeated again and again.

2 Be upfront and acknowledge your child might want to go online to try to find out information about sex and that they can then end up seeing sexual content and pornography.

Give them adequate warnings about accessing adult sites and offer to explain any questions they might have.

3 It is important to communicate the following messages: Porn is not real, it is a performance. If a person is not clear about this fact, their confidence can be knocked and their expectations and ideas about sexual relationships can be negatively impacted. Consent is crucial before any sexual contact can take place between people. This message, which is usually not included in pornography, should be clearly explained. People are not sexual objects and you should not treat someone as if they were an object.

4 Do not assume that a young person who is not keen to ask questions about sex or pornography has no curiosity about it. They may be embarrassed or self-conscious. Normalise these feelings by saying, "It might feel embarrassing or hard to talk about sex with me but I think it's important that we talk. The more we do, the easier it will get as it will just become normal conversation."

5 Do not feel under pressure to answer questions straight away. Parents can say, "That is a really important question and we will put time aside later to talk, when it's quiet." That way, parents have a chance to think about how they wish to respond to a particular question.

6 Don't feel under pressure to give lots of information in one conversation. Like conversations about how to manage friendships, or how to manage peer pressure, conversations about sex and pornography can take place intermittently over time. Opportunities arise or can be created as young people grow and develop.

Anne McCormack is a family psychotherapist registered with ICP and FTAI.