Helping kids who encounter porn: ‘The Talk’ x3

Level-headed advice for parents who really want to help and not overreact

By Anne Collier

It’s no longer just two talks that parents need to have with their kids, the New York Times suggests – “the early lesson about the ‘birds and the bees’ and the more delicate discussion of how to navigate a healthy sexual life as a young adult” – but now also “the [online] pornography talk.” It’s a great piece that quotes top sources on the subject, almost echoing one by my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in the Huffington Post last January: “What to Do if Your Child Is Looking at Porn.”

Both quote psychotherapist, sex educator and author Marty Klein, whose advice to parents in the Times suggests to me, actually, that it’s best not to have just three big-deal talks, but occasional low-key conversations that anticipate what a child can encounter online. “Conventional wisdom has held that strict rules about screen time and installing filtering software will solve the problem,” the Times’s Amy O’Leary wrote. “But given the number of screens, large and small, that fill the average American home, those strategies may be as effective as building a bunker in the sand while the tide rolls in.” It’s not really as bad as she makes it sound. It’s truly not a tide of porn that online kids face – in fact, unwanted exposure to porn actually decreased (11%) among US 10-to-17-year-olds between 2000 and 2010 (see this). But don’t let tech safeguards like filtering software create a false sense of security and keep you from having the conversations.

Dr. Klein said it’s a lot easier for both parents and kids if communication is open and not reactive – such as finding some graphic content in a teen’s browser history or cellphone or comforting a child who’s stumbled on some highly inappropriate content when searching for “My Little Pony” videos.

But if parents haven’t gotten around to the more casual conversations, they also shouldn’t sweat it. It’s just easier without the build-up or guilt about procrastination. No matter what, if a parent finds a child has been viewing pornography intentionally, the discovery can be turned into a “teachable moment,” but it’s important not to overreact, both articles cite experts as saying. The Times cites the view of Elizabeth Schroeder at Rutgers University that “many parents don’t react so calmly…. They may wonder what is wrong with their child or if what the child has seen will forever traumatize him or her. Neither assumption is correct, [Schroeder] said. The greater potential harm – and shame – can come from a parent’s reaction.”

Larry wrote that “you don’t need a psychologist or a pediatrician to recognize how this can be an extremely embarrassing situation for you and your child. After all, you’re entering into the child’s private space.” Daniel Broughton, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told him how important it is that parents not make their kids “feel as if they’re somehow abnormal or perverted.” It helps to separate the activity from the developmentally normative feelings behind it, Dr. Broughton said. He told Larry that parents might want to seek professional advice for themselves on how to deal with the behavior, but “that doesn’t mean you should seek professional care for your child.”

After we were on a conference panel together recently, Dr. Klein kindly sent me his slide with some talking points parents can use when they want to talk with their kids about online porn. You’ll want to calibrate to what’s developmentally appropriate for your child, but here are the key points:

* “It’s fiction, not a documentary”
* Those are “atypical bodies” and “atypical activities”
* “It’s edited” or “photoshopped”
* “Adults play sex games”
* “Different people relate to porn differently – how does it affect you?”

There’s much more wisdom in the both the New York Times and Huffington Post articles – I highly recommend them. The bottom line: Keeping communication lines wide-open “is the best safeguard against any potential harm,” the Times reports – as with every aspect of online and mobile safety, I’d add.

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