Talking to your teenager about pornography

father and daughter talking to each other on couch

Chances are, your teenager has already viewed pornography online. Talking to teens about porn might be awkward, but it’s important for their wellbeing to communicate openly with them about it.

Do I need to talk to my teen about pornography?

In 2016, a study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found that almost half (44 per cent) of the children aged 9–16 surveyed had encountered sexual images online in the last month. Exposure to such images can be:

  • unintentional, such as when young people search online for information on sex, sexual health and relationships; or
  • intentional, such as when searching for porn or clicking on a link they’ve been sent.

Interest in sexual content and porn is totally normal. It can allow a young person to:

  • learn more about sex;
  • explore their sexuality;
  • identify their sexual preferences, in a safe and accessible way;
  • have a bonding experience with their partner, when they watch porn together; and
  • reduce their stress. When stressed, the body produces a hormone called cortisol, which can disrupt the brain’s ability to solve problems. Researchers have found that looking at sexual content or porn helps reduce the brain’s stress response.

On the flip side, looking at some types of porn and sexually explicit content can increase the risk of your teen:

  • engaging in unsafe or non-consensual sexual practices;
  • perpetuating gender stereotypes;
  • having unrealistic expectations about relationships;
  • developing a negative body image;
  • becoming distressed from viewing disturbing content, if aggression or violent behaviour is depicted; and
  • becoming addicted to porn. Porn addiction is when someone isn’t able to stop watching pornography, even though they want to, so that it interferes with their day-to-day activities, such as going to school, eating regular meals, and hanging out with friends and family.

The AIFS identified that education is a key strategy for minimising these risks. Having an informed and open conversation with your teen is a powerful way to help them have safe, respectful relationships.

How can I start the conversation?

Having difficult conversations with teenagers is all about picking the right moment. Choose a time when your teen is relaxed. A good opportunity might arise when you’re doing something together that doesn’t involve direct eye contact, such as when you’re alone with them in the car or doing the dishes together. This will help ease some of the possible awkwardness on both your parts.

You could start the conversation by mentioning something you and your teen have seen in a TV show, movie, video game or advertisement.

Asking questions that actually use the words ‘porn’ or ‘pornography’ will help you direct the conversation. For example, you could ask:

  • Have you heard anyone talking about porn?
  • Some people your age come across porn. Is this something that’s happening with your friends?
  • Have you ever seen porn?
  • Have you seen any videos or articles that discuss porn or sex?
  • Do you have questions about what you’ve seen on the internet or heard people say?

It becomes easier to talk about sensitive subjects, the more you do it. If either of you is so uncomfortable that the conversation isn’t going anywhere, you could also suggest that you begin the discussion by:

  • writing notes to each other;
  • sending texts; or
  • talking on the phone.

What if I find out my teen has viewed pornography?

First thing: keep calm. Don’t let your beliefs or emotions get in the way of a meaningful conversation. Your teen will appreciate your understanding, and will learn from how you deal with difficult conversations like this.

It’s important to ask questions without shaming your teen or making accusations. They’ll be more likely to open up to you if they can see that you’re trying to see things from their point of view and are curious rather than confrontational. For example, explain that you’re interested generally in their thoughts about porn and want to know why they look at it and how they feel afterwards.

What key messages can I give my teen about porn?

Here are some things to talk to your teen about, so that when they come across porn and other sexually explicit content, they can assess for themselves whether what they’re seeing is safe and realistic.

It’s illegal to show porn to someone under 18 years old
Under Australian law, it’s an offence to show porn to a minor. Make sure your teen knows that if an adult tries to show them porn, they can tell you or another trusted adult in their life.

It’s also illegal for someone under 18 years old to be featured in sexually explicit material. This includes videos or photos they’ve taken of themselves.

Safe sex is important
Some teenagers aren’t fully aware of the risks of sex, such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Let them know that condoms are a normal, expected part of real-life sex. Some porn might not actually show how to practise safe sex.

Consent is essential
Teach your teen that consent isn’t only encouraged, but is essential. No one has to have sex or do anything they don’t want to. Consent can also be withdrawn at any time.

What they see online shouldn’t be expected in real life
Explain that people in porn videos are actors who are paid to look like they’re enjoying themselves. Some of them are enjoying themselves, and some of them aren’t. Encourage your teenager to communicate with their partner(s) to ensure that everyone is on the same page about the type of sex they’re happy to have.

Everyday bodies don’t look like the bodies in porn
The way porn stars look can be exaggerated through styling. Just like in Hollywood movies, lighting and makeup can make a big difference to how a person looks on screen. Discuss with your teen their expectations about their own and their partner’s body, and explain that no one should be expected to look a certain way.

They don’t have to like porn
It’s normal to like porn; it’s also normal not to like it, or to have mixed feelings about it. Let your teen know that they don’t have to look at anything they don’t want to, and they don’t need to be okay with it. If someone at school tries to show them something that they’re not okay with, make sure they know they can always talk to you or another trusted adult.

Should I restrict my teen’s internet access?

It may be tempting to try and block, restrict or monitor your child’s internet usage, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is a positive strategy for teens. Instead, educating them, and letting them make their own decisions, will help build trust and support them to grow.

If you’re concerned about your teenager’s screen use, you could take the opportunity to do a family screen-time audit and set some ground rules that everyone agrees on. Involving your teen in the rule setting gives them some independence and makes them much more likely to follow the rules that are agreed on. Decide together what the consequences will be if the rules are broken.

Things to remember

With so many things that you want to teach your child, it can be tricky to navigate your own protective instincts and anticipate your teen’s reactions. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, here are some things to remember:

  • Be honest. If you’re feeling uncomfortable or don’t know how to answer a question your teen has asked, it’s okay to say so. They’ll appreciate that you’re feeling as awkward as they are, and that it’s totally normal to need a bit of time to figure things out.
  • It’s normal for teens to be interested in sex. It’s a regular part of growing up, and just because your teen is interested, it doesn’t mean they’re already sexually active. What you can do as a parent is to educate them so that when they’re ready, they’ll have the tools to make informed decisions for themselves.
  • Don’t judge or shame. Each of you will have your own opinions about porn. Be open and ask your child what they think. Show them that their voice matters.
  • Your child might ask about your experience. If your child asks how you negotiate these issues, or what your experience was like, answering them openly, without being explicit, will encourage them to be open with you in turn.

Make the conversation an ongoing one, and ensure that your child knows they can come to you at any time with any questions or concerns they might have.

Reviewed by the Australian Association for Adolescent Heath.

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