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Kids, Pornography, and Shame

Scary title huh? We don’t want to think about kids and pornography in the same vein regardless of context. Unfortunately, the reality is that first pornography exposure happens often during early adolescence or even childhood. You read correctly, childhood. I’m talking about playground and recess aged kids here. As parents in the digital age, I think most of us are aware that our teenagers have access to inappropriate content at their fingertips; however, we are less aware of the proliferation of it targeting younger children. As a result, we are often caught off guard about how to talk about pornography with young children. Sadly, being unprepared can often lead to some instinctual reactions, that while quite normal, can have unintended consequences in the messaging that kids receive. Mainly, that they did something wrong and that makes them “bad”; shame is not productive nor helpful for healthy sexual development.

            Shame, as a parenting strategy, is not effective at creating healthy change in behaviors (notice the bolded…healthy). In fact, it is just the opposite. While shame may enact change in behaviors, it does so by undermining self-worth and value. Often with the universal emotion, shame, we feel like we are fundamentally flawed as human beings and irrevocably broken. Now with the parents I’ve worked, this isn’t the message that they are trying to instill in their children; assuredly, they are trying to empower and support their children. This is the reason why I think it’s imperative that parents be prepared with the messaging and a script, of sorts, for these conversations. Here are some of the most common questions that I get asked about dealing with pornography exposure and young children aged 6-12 years old:

When should I talk to my child about pornography?

            If your child is using the internet then you need to start having age and developmentally appropriate conversations about pornography. Yes, if your 5 year old is watching videos or playing games then they can come across it, even with filters and other safeguards.

Example: Sometimes adults put stuff on the internet that looks like it’s for kids, like cartoons that show body parts that we’ve talked about being private like a penis or breasts. It isn’t appropriate for kids and it can be really confusing. We want to you show us if you see something that feels confusing, like it might be for adults, but you aren’t sure. We won’t be angry or mad, we love you and want to be able to play your games safely.

How did my child start looking at pornography?

            Typically, a child’s first exposure to pornography happens in one of two ways: they either accidentally click on a link that takes them to a porn site or a friend shows them. Kids are curious and they tend to share their curiosity with their peers. Sadly, kids can be labeled as “bad” or being a “bad influence” when a child reports that their friend Timmy showed them a picture, video, or link that includes pornographic images. This sends the same messaging that was discussed above, that being curious about sexual imagery, sexual acts, or sexuality in general is “bad” or “off limits”. If we want our children to learn about sex from us, their parents, then we need to take ownership of having the conversations.

            Thus, talk to your child about their curiosity. Work to normalize their curiosity about sex and the feelings that they experienced. Create an environment that is safe, even if you or they are uncomfortable, to discuss sex and pornography and your beliefs and values regarding them. They will get their sexual education from other sources regardless if we abdicate this role in our children’s development.

Example: Joey, thank you for telling us when you clicked on that link; you did exactly what we’d talked about you doing. We’ve talked about how sex and sexual feelings are normal and healthy, I wonder if you’re curious about any of the images that you saw? What did you feel when you looked at the images? Sometimes it feels really exciting to see things that we don’t know a lot about, like naked body parts or sexual acts, these feelings are normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. We value sexuality and feel that explicit sexual images are harmful to that development because they can portray sex in a way that isn’t realistic or healthy.

How do I teach my child that porn isn’t realistic?

            For very young children, framing it as the actors are playing pretend puts the concept into a form that they understand as they often engage in pretending. Keep it simple, short and provide an opportunity to ask questions if they remain curious.

Example: Joey, you and your friends love to play superheroes right? Sometimes you even dress up as your favorites superheroes and pretend to save the world. The movie that you saw, the people are actors and are playing and pretending too. They were playing,  sex is a way that adults play, but they were playing pretend in that movie.

            Older children typically can conceptualize the difference between real and pretend without the fantastical examples; however, as pornography depicts real acts it can sometimes be difficult for them to understand how it isn’t real. I like to use an example of something that is also real but exaggerate like driving in the Fast and Furious movies. Go on YouTube and find a driving scene and watch it together and discuss how, while some of the basic concepts are real, the actual movie isn’t. For example, it was filmed on a sound stage or movie lot with a professional driver doing the stunt maneuvers. Adult films are also filmed as a movie production with actors, the maneuvers are scripted and practiced, the vocalizations and facials are exaggerated, etc. So, while the act itself is real, the depiction of the act isn’t.

While I just skimmed the surface, I hope this gives parents some ideas to start the conversation. This subject is scary and can be very intimidating for parents to explore with children, especially young children. However, parents have the opportunity to influence the narrative that children are exposed to in a way that creates a safe environment for healthy sexual development without shame.

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