What should parents do when they discover that their young teen or preteen has been looking at pornography sites online? And what does it mean?
Based on a survey of online victimization conducted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, only a small percentage of kids seek out pornography on purpose, and most respond appropriately by quickly leaving the site, though few report such incidents to parents (Wolak et al., 2006). Exposure to sexually explicit content online can occur very easily through a misdirected Google search using an innocent word such as “toy,” a misspelled word or URL, a misleading website or email, or a link or photo sent by a peer or through spam (Wolak et al, 2007).
When evaluating what it means that your child is viewing sexually explicit material, before reacting or drawing conclusions, the first step is to assess the situation to find out what is really going on and whether there is a problem. Is this an ongoing issue? How many times has this occurred? Does this seem to be a habit? Are there other changes in behavior, mood or sleep? Is your child isolating himself?
Find out how your child has encountered these sites. Does anyone else at home frequent these websites or suffer from a hidden sexual addiction? When others at home with access to the computer -have a hidden sex addiction, children are exposed to such material with or without the parent’s knowledge, giving the child more opportunity and temptation to explore such websites themselves.
What are the sites the child is going to and what is he looking at? For example, the meaning and effect of looking up the word “sex” on “ehow.com” (a website that is an “encyclopedia” of sorts on how to do anything) is different from watching porn videos online. Children may look for, or view, sites at first out of curiosity after having stumbled upon them – or to find out about sex. When the motivation is curiosity, the diagnosis could simply be “teenager” or “preteen”, the impact benign, and prognosis good.
However, viewing pornography, especially in an ongoing way, can have potentially detrimental effects on children, and may be motivated or perpetuated by loneliness, isolation and compulsion.
What are the potential negative effects of viewing online pornography?
In the absence of any context, and without having learned about or known healthy sexuality, children may experience depictions of sex as confusing and take the images they see to be representative models of adult behavior. They are thereby introduced to sex before they are ready through images they do not understand, which often involve sexual deviations, and sex detached from relationship or meaning, responsibility, and intimacy.
Children are most at risk when they are repeatedly exposed to images that are overstimulating and potentially addictive. If viewed compulsively and accompanied by sexual release through masturbating, Internet pornography can have a desensitizing effect, requiring greater intensity and frequency as well as causing deviant sexuality to seem like the norm.
Cybersex addiction functions in a similar way to any other addiction, leading to a cycle of preoccupation, compulsion, acting out, isolation, self-absorption, shame and depression as well as distorted views of real relationships and intimacy. However, not everyone exposed to pornography becomes addicted to it.
Teens who are most susceptible to addiction are those who cannot rely on parents to provide a consistent source of contact and comfort to help them regulate their emotional state. Such families include, but are not limited to, those where a parent may suffer from an addiction – including alcohol – or fail to be emotionally available for other reasons. Children from these families are vulnerable – they often have low self-esteem and feel alone. They learn not to trust or depend on others and find ways to comfort and stimulate themselves which do not involve people and which are reliably available to them and within their control.
Another danger teens are exposed to online is unwanted sexual solicitation. Teens are the most vulnerable of any age group to such unwanted sexual advances (Wolak et al., 2006). One in 7 teens reported having been subjected to unwanted provocations – the majority of which involved invitations to meet offline, asking teens to talk about sex or answer sexual questions, or asking teens for sexually explicit photos (Wolak et al., 2006).
A related hazard for teens online involves “sexting” – sending sexually explicit photos usually over cell phones or sometimes over the Internet. Sexting is most commonly engaged in by teens with their peers and usually involves peer pressure. Sexting often creates an expectation of “hooking up” (sex) on the part of the recipient, and increases the pressure to have sex, and likelihood of it occurring, during the next encounter. Sexting is risky in this way and, also, because it often leads to unforeseen reputation disasters that may be irreparable. This often begins with a photo sent to a boyfriend or potential boyfriend, which then – unbeknownst to the sender – is passed around and forwarded to the recipient’s friends and “contacts,” like a chain letter spreading out of control. In addition, these photos can resurface later on and be used for blackmail or to wreak havoc on a person’s career.
The surest way to protect teens is to be aware of what is going on with them, and within your family, and make it safe for them to talk to you. Finding out that your child has viewed Internet pornography is not cause for panic. Most children and teens do not suffer from sex addictions. And when they do, this problem is usually secondary to other secret or hidden issues in the family affecting them, which must be the focus of treatment along with the teen’s symptom.
To keep teens out of harm’s way, the key is being their ally and helping them collaborate with you in wanting to be safe. If you are not on the same side, your teen will find a way to outsmart or work around even the best technology and well-thought out rules. Remember — the relationship you have with your child and his perception of you as trustworthy and reasonable is the most protective factor against all the dangers faced by teens today.
Tips for Parents in Dealing with Pornography
- The key is to remain calm (please refer to “Guidelines for Parents: CALM in the “Know Your Limits” column). Use a neutral and nonjudgmental tone in talking to teens, taking care not to lecture, yell, blame or shame them for their behavior or for hiding it. Prepare yourself in advance so that you can be in the right mindset for an open conversation.
- Be frank and upfront. Do not lie or test them to see if they will confess the truth. Let them know you are aware that they have have been looking at some websites that can be confusing and harmful to children.
- Explain the dangers. The dangers are:
- You can easily get addicted to viewing these images because they trick you into feeling pleasure and excitement. You may not realize it until it’s too late. Once you get addicted you feel compelled to keep doing it, aren’t in control, and it’s hard to stop.
- The images can be sexually exciting and that can make you want more and more. Eventually the things that would naturally create sexual excitement will no longer have that effect.
- Going to these sites can make you feel ashamed and bad about yourself, and then you have to hide this behavior from people,
- The images will mislead you. You won’t be able to tell what’s normal sexual behavior and what isn’t.
- Viewing these images repeatedly can have negative effects on development of healthy sexuality and that will affect your relationships in the future.
- Educate teens about predators online. Inform them that teens are targeted by predators – “grooming” them by appealing to teens’ interest in and curiosity about romance, sex, and risk-taking. (Wolak et al., 2006). Predators disguise their age and identity – and use tricks that make them seem like they are your friend, in order to get you to you trust and confide in them, preparing to manipulate and use you.
- Let them know that just like you have rules about where it is safe to go in the real world there are the same rules about the virtual world. Some places are dangerous and are especially dangerous because they pull you in and can make it hard to stop going there.
- Explain that you will keep an eye on where they go online in order to protect them. Explain the rules they need to follow to be safe online.
- Explain and answer questions that help them understand the basis for rules and guidelines. Don’t be mysterious or make the sites seem forbidden.
- Don’t be controlling or authoritarian.
- Avoid getting into a power struggle – you will ultimately lose. If teens comply to be obedient, to avoid punishment, or avoid disappointing you, they are more apt to rebel, go behind your back, or lie to you.
- Show an interest in who their online buddies are, just like you are interested in their other friends.
- Familiarize yourself with Internet safety guidelines for parents, including learning acronyms teens use when they text and IM each other.
Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, and David Finkelhor (2006). Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. Alexandria, Virginia: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 1-96.