The average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is 11 years old. With porn sites readily available on all digital devices, it’s inevitable that most kids will be exposed at some point, either unintentionally or intentionally. While boys account for the majority of youth who search for pornography online, girls watch it as well. Youth that view pornography once a month or more are at a greater risk of developing depression, anxiety, unrealistic ideas about sex, unrealistic perceptions about body image, sexually permissive attitudes and a preoccupation with sex.
While there is no official diagnosis of pornography addiction, there is evidence that repetitive viewing of pornography can re-wire the brain causing changes similar to those seen with other addictions by triggering the release of unnaturally high levels of dopamine. With continued exposure, the brain can become unresponsive to natural sources of pleasure and crave more, while making it harder for the same images to provide gratification, leading to an increase in use and search for more graphic content. Internet pornography can be considered a supernormal stimulus.
Along with junk food and video games, pornography is an artificial product that activates reward pathways in the brain more so than the naturally occurring stimuli for which these systems developed, leading an otherwise predisposed person towards excessive consumption and preference for this over naturally occurring alternatives. Children and adolescents are even more vulnerable to the effects of internet pornography because of the fact that their brains are still developing.
Young people turn to the internet to learn about many things, and you don’t want pornography to be their only source of information about sex. Educating your child on the risks of inappropriate, adult content online should include discussions on sexuality and Internet safety. It’s up to you to decide what you want to communicate to your children about sex and to start the dialogue early with ongoing conversations throughout the course of their development to express your values.
Talking to your kids about this doesn’t have to be a lecture, but something to bring up casually in short conversations over time. Try to delay your child seeing porn as long as possible by using parental controls, monitoring internet use, limiting non-school related screen time and keeping devices out of children’s bedrooms. Preventive software including ﬁltering, blocking, and monitoring is part of an Internet safety plan, but still may not totally prevent access to online pornography.
You can say “You may see porn at some point and if you do, I won’t be mad, but it’s important that you tell me. You won’t be in trouble.” Tell them to close the browser window and come talk to you. The goal is to keep the lines of communication open so your kids can go to you with questions. Parents might worry that bringing up the subject could give kids who aren’t watching porn the idea to do so. But this is no different from talking to kids about drugs and alcohol.
What if you do find pornography on your child’s electronic device? Remain calm and nonjudgmental. It’s natural for young adolescents to be interested in sex. You don’t want to punish or cause feelings of shame or guilt. Consider saying something like “It looks like you’ve seen websites with adult stuff (pornography). I’m not upset and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Its normal to be curious. I know you may not want to hear it, but I have to share some facts with you and tell you about the risks that are associated with viewing this.”
Let them know how fake and distorted pornography is. Sexual behavior is normal but online videos are not, they are staged and scripted to portray a fantasy. The unrealistic expectations in porn can be damaging to real relationships. Real sex usually comes with real emotions, which are intentionally absent from porn, as is using protection and talking about consent. It’s like trying to learn to drive a car by watching Fast & Furious. For older kids/teenagers, tell them about the brain changes. As I’ve heard it phrased by some generation Z teens, “It fries your dopamine receptors and will dull the rest of your life.”
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- The impact of pornography on children in American College of Pediatricians- June 2016
- Porn and your Kids Fact Sheet- Australian Research Council DP170100808
- Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research (2016). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441
- Child and Adolescent Pornography Exposure (2020) https://www.jpedhc.org/article/S0891-5245(19)30384-0/fulltext
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