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When Your Child Has Seen Porn, How Can You Keep Talking With Them About It?

The following is a framework to guide productive conversations if you find out your child’s been exposed to porn or your teen is struggling.

This guest piece was written by  Dr. Jo Robertson, a sex therapist and the Research and Training Lead at The Light Project. 7-minute read.
The 5 C’s: How to Talk to Kids After Porn Exposure

By Jo Robertson, BSoc Sci, PG Dip Couns, MSc Med

For most caregivers or parents, having a porn conversation can feel awkward.

It can feel even more overwhelming if you think a young child has been exposed to porn or a teenager has been struggling with it and may be experiencing some harm.

There are some great tips for having the initial talk with your children to build critical thinking and porn literacy (click HERE for kids chats and HERE for teen chats); but there’s little info out there for parents needing to ask some of the trickier and grittier questions that are sometimes needed to assess if a young person has experienced harm.

Related: When Your Child Has Seen Porn, How Will it Affect Them?

The following is a framework to guide safe and positive conversations if you find out your child has been exposed to porn or your teen is struggling—with the goal of being able to fully understand their porn experience and offer them the best possible support.

Store - General

Consumption

Asking questions about how much porn they’ve come across, how regularly they may have been watching and what age they were first exposed is important to understand the extent of your child’s habit and the range of time it may have been influencing them.

Consider questions like:

  • “Can you remember the first time you saw porn? How old were you then? How did you feel?”
  • “How often do you think you watch porn now? Is it a few minutes at a time or sometimes longer?”

Younger exposure indicates more developmental years exposed to porn scripts and potential impacts on sexual attitudes, expectations, and beliefs. If they first started watching porn at 8 years old, for example, then a big chunk of their sexually developmental years have been exposed to the messaging in porn.

Related: How to Discuss Porn When You Talk to Your Kids About Sex

Duration is equally as important to enquire about as frequency; some young people also binge watch porn, potentially watching less frequently but for longer periods of time. If a teen discloses they are watching an increasing amount of porn, and are struggling to cut back, they will likely need support from you, or experienced professionals to change it up.

Circumstances

Asking questions about the circumstances of a young person’s porn exposure and potential ongoing use is vital to keep them safe and/or put some preventative measures in place, as the reality is that some kids can be in unsafe relationships, and/may be experiencing pressure from another person regarding their porn experiences…or may be shown porn by adults as a means of sexual grooming.

As caregivers, this possibility can be disturbing to consider, however, it’s important that we confront the reality, so we can take steps to keep our kids safe.

Related: The Question Parents Dread: How Much Porn is Your Child Watching?

Some young people can be shown porn regularly by friends, feel pressure to watch porn, or are in relationships where partners expect them to perform sexual acts they’ve seen in porn.

Consider asking questions like:

  • “How did you come across porn for the first time?”
  • “Has anyone else ever shown or encouraged you to watch it?”
  • “Where/when do you watch porn?”
  • “Have you felt pressure to try stuff from porn?”
  • “Is anyone else ever around?”

If a young person is being groomed by an adult, they have often been manipulated into keeping the relationship a secret and may be threatened into not exposing the adult, so be sure to ask questions regularly.

Be sensitive to any reluctance to share and enquire in a gentle and caring way.

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Content

Porn is often considered as the “wild west of the internet”—masses of unregulated content with very few guidelines on what’s ok to create or share.

There are numerous genres, categories, trends, and behaviors that a young person may be exposed to in a short period of time. Asking what a young person has seen or sought out helps us understand the potential impacts or harm.

Consider asking questions like these:

  • “Have you ever seen anything where it looks like someone was hurt or said no?”
  • There’s lots of different types of porn now—what kind of porn have you seen?”
  • “Have you seen anything that made you feel uncomfortable, can you share what that was?”
  • “When you land on a porn site, do you ever click on specific categories, what are those?”

A caring, open, and non-judgmental tone is very important when asking these questions as fear of judgment is a big barrier to open convos for young people, especially those from faith or cultural backgrounds where there can be a lot of shame associated with porn.

Related: Parents: What’s Better than Internet Filters? Direct Conversations About Porn

Whatever a young person shares about what they have seen, it’s essential to remain un-shockable, not appear disappointed, affirm that they are really brave in sharing, and thank them for their honesty.

**Note: If your young person is not ready to be open about the details of their porn usage, pull back on specific questions initially. The priority is to build trust around talking about porn, so they know you are a safe person and can open up when they are ready. It may take 3-4 conversations before they are ready to share some of the more personal details of their experiences with porn.

Characteristics

Every young person is different—who they are as a person and their history shapes how they perceive and experience porn, with some young people being more vulnerable to the negative impacts of porn than others.

Research suggests LGBTIQ+ youth, and youth with long-term health issues and disabilities are more likely to use porn as a learning tool, use porn to manage stress and anxiety, and to try out things from porn in real life.

Young people from religious or cultural backgrounds where porn is taboo are more likely to experience shame and distress about their usage and to label themselves as being “addicted to porn.”

Related: When Your Child Has Seen Porn, How Will it Affect Them?

Young people with minimal sex education may also be more vulnerable to what’s called “perceived realism”—thinking porn is real and therefore being less critical of the content. Those with a trauma history can feel triggered by porn or use porn to process sexual experiences that have happened to them.

Being mindful of the unique characteristics of your child is important in any conversation, and will also impact what kind of support or further information they need.

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Concerns

Young people can be affected by porn in lots of different ways. This includes porn impacting their mental health and body image, porn shaping their attitudes’ expectations and experiences of sex and relationships, experiencing porn-related shame, or feeling “addicted to porn.”

Other young people may not watch porn but feel pressure to, or be worried about a friend’s or partner’s usage. Some young people will have no concerns about their own usage and believe they are managing it well.

Related: For Parents & Caregivers: How to Talk to Your Kids About Porn

It’s important we don’t assume what’s going on for young people, but rather ask them if they have any concerns, offer up some examples of potential impacts and allow them space and time to share their thoughts and feelings.

I believe our role as parents is to create an open dialogue rather than give a monologue of our own thoughts. Be a safe space for them to ask questions, and to offer counter-messaging to porn narratives when appropriate.

It takes time to build trust

The 5 C’s (consumption, circumstances, content, context, concerns) offer up a range of questions and considerations to cover with your young person, so it’s very likely you will only need to use some of these prompts, and over several conversations.

Porn conversations are a marathon, not a sprint, and they happen over time, giving the young person (and yourself) space to think and reflect.

Related: TEDx Talk—Tips from a Sex Therapist on Talking to Your Kids About Porn

If you only manage to ask a few questions before they ask for the conversation to stop, that’s okay. Let them know you’ll be there to chat about it when they’re ready and thank them for what they shared.

Building trust is paramount—and will allow ongoing conversations and create a space where young people can get the support they need if they are experiencing porn-related harm.

Bark

About the author

Jo has a Master’s of Science in Medicine specializing in sex therapy, with a focus on international consumption rates and impacts of porn on adolescents. She has had 15 years’ experience working in sexual health, through education and counseling. Jo has a private therapeutic practice specializing in problematic sexual behaviors, sexual dysfunction and relationship breakdown due to betrayal. She is also the Research and Training Lead for The Light Project, a charitable trust researching the new porn landscape and how to positively navigate it. She did a TEDx talk in 2019, titled “Why we need to talk about porn” and speaks internationally on the topic of “youth and porn.”

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