We don’t like to think of our children as sexual creatures any more than they like thinking of us that way, but consider the numbers: According to a 2007 University of Alberta study of 13- and 14-year-olds, 90 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls had been exposed to sexually explicit media content by that age. Ugh.
It’s time for us to deal with the reality that, statistically speaking, the child who makes it all the way to high school without seeing other people do sexual things is practically extinct. Again — ugh.
Talking about this is hard, but having uncomfortable conversations is what parenting looks like in the digital age. They’re as necessary for our kids’ health as bike helmets, sunscreen and vegetables.
As a therapist, sex educator and parent, I am well aware of the mess that consuming pornography can create for young people. Disclaimer: I am not against porn in some kind of moralistic, blanket-statement way. However, incorporating porn into an already established sense of oneself as a sexual person is incredibly different than creating one’s sexuality out of pornography.
Underagers are marinating in a highly sexualized culture. Although efforts should be made to minimize its impact on their developing psyches and libidos, the conversation is no longer about how to shield our kids from sexual content. Instead, we need to decide what to say to prepare them for it, and how to help them handle it when — not if — that first exposure happens.
Having these conversations before you think you need to is key, and a big part of my job is to help parents get the ball rolling. Here are a few tips.
Beware of ‘not my kid’ syndrome
Yes, all our children are unique snowflakes — and yes, we’re all doing the best parenting we can with the tools we have. But porn still happens. Our children have to expend more energy to avoid porn than any of us ever spent trying to get our hands on the stuff back in the day.
Tip: Don’t freak out or shame your kids when you discover they are consuming pornography. They are awash in adolescent biology and curious by nature, and sexual content is everywhere: First exposure most often happens by accident.
Instead, give them a heads-up about this type of adult entertainment called “porn.” Explain that it is “a grown-up thing,” says Amy Lang, M.A., a parent educator in Seattle, “and ask them to come and talk to you when they see it.”
Porn is sexual — it is not sex
There are few role models for what real, responsible sexuality looks like in the media in general, let alone in porn. Most tweens’ and teens’ primary source for sex ed is the Internet. They are much more likely to ask Bing or Google than mom or dad.
But here’s the funny thing: Kids don’t think they can actually drive a car after playing Grand Theft Auto, but many a teen boy in my office has let me know, with great confidence, that he knows how to “do sex” from watching pornography.
Tip: Feel free to use my video game example, and explain that most people don’t speak or act with each other in real life the way they do in porn.
Peers can be the gateway
Sexting and sexualized influence from peers is commonplace. The anonymity and immunity that screens seem to offer can make it very tempting for everyone to behave in ways they wouldn’t in real life (witness some of the horrifying things adults say in the comments section of online articles). In the absence of learning how to flirt and build relationships properly, many kids rely on high-tech communications.
One parent shared the story of his 12-year-old’s lost phone: Within hours of its disappearance at school, the boy’s female contacts — from 11-year-old classmates to an aunt — “began to receive requests for nude pictures.” Kim Estes, founder of Bellevue’s Savvy Parents Safe Kids, says that many parents have told her their child’s first exposure to online porn was “on the school bus, the first week of middle school.”
Tip: Remind kids that “sexting” is what it’s called when adults do it. When anyone younger than 18 sends sexually explicit content via text, it is legally defined as child pornography, and it is a felony to create, distribute and possess such content.
Don’t avoid technology; develop a relationship with it
I bet some of you just thought, “So my kid won’t get a smartphone until he’s 30, no problem.” Unfortunately, all our kids will get online at some point, whether we like it or not, and it is imperative that we give them the gifts of supervision, social skills and a safety net.
This is where monitoring comes in. Just like when we’re teaching them to ride a bike, kids need us to offer hands-on guidance and protective tools. We allow for more and more freedom gradually — after seeing them handle mistakes and develop a certain level of mastery.
Tip: Different than blocking software, monitoring software (such as Net Nanny) enables kids to develop the good judgment and self-control we want them to have as adults.
Use their media to your advantage
Conversations about gender roles, power dynamics, nonsexual affection, flirting and concepts such as love and consent need to counterbalance the more accessible graphic images kids see every day. Movies, song lyrics, books, YouTube videos and even TV commercials are excellent opportunities for discussion.
Tip: Talking about theoretical situations, like the ones presented in ads, helps make these conversations less threatening and less awkward.
The majority of parents I speak with received well-intentioned but often inadequate information from their own parents about sexuality. We can — and must — do better. As technology evolves, so should we.