No one wants to talk about this.
I get it, this is an uncomfortable and sensitive topic this week. Porn. It’s in the palms of almost every tween and teen’s hands and yet we don’t want to think about it. Every month I get calls about kids watching porn online or having seen images after typing in search terms like penis or boobs. I aim to arm you with some basic information so you can try to prevent this from happening or know what to do if it does happen.
My kid watched porn and I don’t know what to do…
I received a voicemail early one Monday morning from a frantic father saying something to the effect of, “my wife and I discovered that our daughter has been watching extremely disturbing sexual videos online and we are just sick about this. We aren’t sure how to handle this, please call us back immediately.”
When I called Jeff and Joanna back they were clearly distraught about this. Their daughter was 12 years old, a great student had good friends, was active, and was the child they never worried about. They have three children, she is the oldest and they never suspected a thing. But when her mother went into her room that morning to get her laundry she noticed that the iPad was under her sheets. Her mother figured she must have sneaked it in her room after bedtime the night before and was annoyed so she wanted to see what she was watching. When she turned the iPad on there were numerous nude images and popups for porn sites. What Joanna saw horrified her. She called in Jeff to come see what she was seeing- in that instance they both felt their daughter’s innocence was robbed.
I had them come in later that morning to discuss how they would approach their daughter after school. They had a lot of questions and wanted a plan of action. Given how common of an issue this is, I was able to provide them with some guidance. The first thing I shared with them was just how common this is. In the US, the average age of first having internet porn exposure is age eleven. That is frightening, I know, we are talking about fifth graders. In terms of top “health” concerns, internet porn ranks in the top 5 issues medical professionals are concerned about. Besides the often disturbing visual images that children are exposed to, it is the sexual solicitation requests that follow that are disturbing. The Crimes Against Children Center estimate that 1:7 children and 1:5 teens have been solicited online. Of the children who are solicited online about a quarter of them are thought to tell a parent. Whew…overwhelming I know.
After discussing how common this is, we came up with a plan to address this with their daughter. They agreed on a few key things that I will share with you that can be helpful when having to address this sensitive and emotional topic with children or teens.
1. Stay Calm- there are few issues in parenting that will trigger a parent more than your child having been exposed to sexually explicit content. So, before confronting them about it, keep a few deep breaths, talk it through with someone and compose yourself. Jeff and Joanna did this step with me and it seemed helpful to them before picking their children up from school.
2. Talk about internet safety– this means talking to kids about all of the many wonderful opportunities that the internet offers such as research, games and staying in touch with friends and family but also educates them about the hazards. When discussing hazards there are three main areas that Jeff and Joanna talked about with all of their kids which were cyber-bullying, online predators who often pretend to be kids their age as well as inappropriate images. they encouraged them to go to them first with questions, ask for help with online research and to report anything that made them feel uncomfortable. They assured their kids they would not get into trouble if they were forthcoming and honest.
3. Process the images and emotions– Jeff and Joanna had the difficult task of asking their daughter, in private, without the siblings around, what she had viewed. Of course, their daughter did not want to be forthcoming at first but eventually shared some of what happened. The parents were able to express empathy (instead of anger) to her and were concerned (instead of alarmist). They also decided it would be a good idea to have her see someone for therapy to assure that she had the support she needed to process what she saw. While therapy is not necessary in every case, given her age and the content of what she watched they decided it would be best for her to talk to someone she trusted outside of their home.
4. Assure your child that what they saw is not love– for many children they have heard of the word sex but don’t really know what it means. Even children’s books that explain it in age-appropriate ways do not always make it clear to a child what “making a baby” means. So, I have found it very important to explain to a child who describes often graphic and disturbing images they viewed that what they saw is not normal. It is not love. It is not safe. It may not have been real. It is nothing like what people do when they love each other and create a family. I have found speaking directly like this is comforting to a child who is confused and scared about what they experienced online. Jeff and Joanna shared that they really appreciated being able to say that to their daughter and that when they did she cried what seemed to be tears of relief.
5. Normalize their curiosity– simple put, parents need to share that it is normal to wonder about sexual body parts, their own and those of other people. It is also normal to want to get more information on things we don’t know about. However, parents also need to tell their kids that there are different, places and people where you get information. Assure them that if they have questions they can ask you and if you don’t know the answer you will find it for them or with them.
6. Install monitoring apps– and last but not least, it’s never too early to enable parental controls from your internet service provider, set up passwords, inactivate wifi at bedtime, and to install software and apps to monitor and alert you of anything that may be dangerous or suspicious. Starting off this way is a best practice so your kids don’t argue later on down the road when they are older that you no longer trust them. Just start off being cautious, when I talked to Jeff and Joanna they had wished they had done this sooner.
Exposure to inappropriate online content can happen at any time to your kids within your own home, at a friend’s house or on the playground with someone who has a smartphone. Prevention is key as this can be a very scary experience for your whole family. Happy Parenting!
Last Call for Pre-Orders
The paperback edition of Mommy Burnout is available on Tuesday, 9/25! Order today to receive additional researched based tips for common issues like the one you just read about. Chapter 4: How Many “Likes” Did I Get Today? expands on today’s topic and addresses social media issues for both kids and parents.