Jessica Zurcher had an experience that led her to conduct 33 qualitative interviews regarding parent–child pornography communication. This post draws on those interviews to offer five suggestions for talking with children about pornography, advocating for an approach with open communication and discussion. Jessica is an assistant professor in the School of Communications, Brigham Young University, USA. She researches new media, children and family communication. [Header image credit: M. Brunk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Several of my middle-school students were in my Language Arts room catching up on coursework. I noticed that one student had slightly turned his screen away from me and appeared to be heavily locked-in to his computer. I stood behind him to view his screen and was taken-aback. In the central portion was a fictitious-looking, cartoon-like computer game. The graphics were brightly coloured with the main character throwing apples and leaping over goofy, abnormally sized chunks of cheese. But on the side of the game was an image I still clearly recall, a picture of the top-half portion of a naked female in a provocative pose.

Although this student didn’t appear to be paying attention to it, I was alarmed – a child encountering pornography intermixed with children’s entertainment that was being accessed in an educational environment where filters were supposedly ‘in place’.

So I asked myself, what resources are available to combat the effects of adolescents accessing pornography – and more specifically, where unwanted exposure can occur?

Adolescents, pornography and the digital age

Educators and parents discovering children encountering online pornography is becoming commonplace. Indeed, some say that the average age of adolescent exposure to pornography is 11 years.

This isn’t necessarily surprising, particularly considering that about 92% of US adolescents (ages 13 to 17) use the internet daily. And the internet provides space for what’s known as the ‘triple-A engine effect’, where internet users are offered potentially unlimited availability, access and anonymity via personalised computers to online pornography.

Should we be concerned?

Although research related to the implications of general adult pornography use is mixed, findings addressing its impact on adolescents are more consistent, despite some concerns regarding the methodological approaches used.

Manning summarises the current literature, suggesting several negative outcomes:

  • decreased sensitivity towards women
  • distorted and unhealthy views about sexuality
  • increased risk of developing a negative body image
  • increased risk of developing sexually compulsive behaviour.

Communicating about pornography to protect children

There is a plethora of benefits for adolescents who experience warm, open parent–child relationships, so why can’t discussing pornography with children in a positive manner hold similar effects?

According to Patricia Greenfield’s testimony to the Congressional Committee on Government Reform:

A warm and communicative parent–child relationship is the most important nontechnical means that parents can use to deal with the challenges of the sexualized media environment…

Five insights

After my research on parent–child pornography communication, I came up with the following insights and suggestions:

  1. Increase parents’ education about pornography prior to discussions with children: Patterns in the sexual communication literature posit parental sexual knowledge as a central predictor as to whether parents address sexual topics with their children. This means that parents need more information about adolescent pornography exposure rates, types of pornography content available to teens, harms of pornography on adolescents, etc.
  2. Use of age-appropriate language to define and discuss pornography: The literature notes that the concept of ‘pornography’ is ambiguous and complex, and the majority of parents in my study conveyed a similar view. One suggestion is to encourage parents to use the word ‘pornography’; don’t disguise pornography – call it for what it is. Another is to use age-appropriate language – discussions about pornography that occur with a 10-year-old will differ from communication with a 15-year-old.
  3. Remove shame-based messaging: Several participants felt that most mothers blamed and punished their children for encountering pornography. Such reactions are harmful to parent–child relationships, particularly if children perceive negative consequences from discussing pornography with trusted adults. Educators and parents alike must prepare their response to children encountering pornography. Acts that illustrate positive communication, such as a parent thanking a child for confiding in them, asking questions and/or encouraging further open dialogue may be helpful in shifting conversations to warmer communication climates.
  4. Prepare adolescents to encounter pornography – don’t be victim to the ‘third person effect’: It is highly likely that an adolescent will encounter pornography, and several of the parents I talked to perceived a social norm from others that suggests ‘good kids don’t encounter pornography’. This ties into the third person effect, or the idea that media holds a greater impact on those around us compared to ourselves. Adolescent pornography exposure statistics imply that this is inaccurate. Just as parents should prepare children to encounter pornography, they should also prepare to discuss pornography with their children.
  5. Build an ongoing, open, positive relationship with children so that when they encounter various online content, they know where to turn to ask questions: There are numerous benefits of positive parent–child communication. Developing an open communication pattern with children on multiple subjects – not just pornography – is crucial to assisting children navigating through online content. Parenting tools often expressed through an authoritative parenting style can be useful in building a positive rapport with children, and they may be more likely to approach parents and trusted adults with questions about pornography rather than seek information about sex or sexuality from external (and untrusted) sources.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.