top of page

Worried your child has seen porn? Here’s how to talk to your kids about it

Updated: Mar 7

Long gone are the days of huddling around a family computer in the living room. The proliferation of devices such as tablets and smartphones at school, in the bedroom and in a young person’s pocket everyday has changed the landscape when it comes to accessing online pornography. In this post, we take you through what Australian teens have to say when it comes to pornography, how it affects them and what you can do to support them. 


Teen watching porn on smartphone

Is My Child Watching Porn? Here’s What the Research Says


We can’t ignore the fact that pornography is now easier to access than ever. Almost half of children aged 9-16 reported regular exposure to sexual images (Quadara et al. 2017). But before parents hit the panic button at the realisation their pre-teen ‘baby’ might not be so innocent, it’s important to understand how and why young people are accessing or being exposed to explicit content online.


Kids' and Teen’s Exposure to Porn: What Every Parent Needs to Know


More recent research from the eSafety Commissioner (2023) found that most young people encounter porn for the first time unintentionally. While not a huge study, they surveyed over 1000 young people aged 16-18, and combined this with two focus groups to gain a qualitative understanding of young people’s thoughts and behaviours around pornography. 


The findings shed some light on young people's early encounters with porn. It was found that most young people encounter pornography for the first time unintentionally: it either popped up when they were searching for something, on a gaming site or social media, or it was sent to them by their peers or in social networks (i.e. someone sent a photo in a group chat). Just under a third of respondents said they were younger than 13 when they were first exposed to porn.  


Responses provided insight into the way in which pornographic material is disseminated online, such as “spam links” on Reddit and Instagram, and fake accounts on Snapchat “being made for the purpose of trying to get teens to access porn”. 


“It's even on ’children’s’ websites as well. Like, websites that young kids access are just spammed with ads." - Straight man, aged 16

Now if reading this makes you want to lock away your kid’s smartphone and keep them under a rock, those feelings are completely understandable. But take a deep breath, and let those emotions settle, so that we can deal with this more productively. 


First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that these responses suggest young people are actually also uncomfortable with this unintentional exposure to porn. And as adults, we need to manage our own emotional reaction to this, so that they can feel safe to turn to us for support. 


Shame & Stigma: Barriers To Young People Seeking Help When They Encounter Porn Online


Research found that embarrassment, shame and stigma were the biggest barriers when it comes to young people seeking help with something they’ve encountered online (eSafety Commissioner, 2023; Dawson et al. 2019; Hare et al. 2015). 


If we continue to demonise pornography and shame everyone who watches it, we can’t expect children to turn to us when they’ve seen something uncomfortable. If we react in shock, anger or horror when a child shows us an explicit video their friend has sent them, we can’t expect them to keep asking for help. As adults, we need to work to overcome the sex-negativity we’ve internalised in our own upbringings, and get comfortable talking about sex


Without education from trusted adults to help them navigate explicit content online, young people face damaging impacts.

Understanding the Risks of Pornography on Young People


1. Distorted Views: How Porn Creates Unrealistic Expectations of Sex for Kids


As adults, we know that sex as it is depicted in porn is generally not reflective of how things play out in real life. When children encounter pornography however, this is very likely to be the first time they have seen any kind of sexual acts, and this can largely influence what they might come to expect if/when they eventually find themselves engaging in sex themselves.


The reality about porn is that it is not real. The people on screen are actors, and the focus is all about performance - saying and doing things in an often exaggerated way, putting on a display for an audience. Yet sadly, these unrealistic depictions do play into people’s behaviour. Findings from the US reveal that the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he is to request specific acts he has watched from his partner (Sun et. al., 2016). 


There is also generally no focus on intimacy, emotional connection or checking in to make sure your partner is actually enjoying themselves. Instead, the focus is on performative pleasure. And because sex in porn is “for show”, often sexual acts can be much more extreme than what most people actually prefer to do in real life. This means that young people may choose to engage in behaviours such as spanking, choking or bondage not because it’s what they like, but because it’s what they think sex is supposed to be like.



2. Porn & Body Image: Negative Effects on Teens’ Self-Esteem


Bodies in porn are generally a certain “type”. Most often slim and muscular, usually white, with small noses, big eyelashes, and genitals that look like they have all been cast from the same mould. This leads to young people internalising that there is a “correct” way to look, a “sexy” body and a “not sexy” body. And the reality is that the bodies in porn are representative of such a tiny percentage of the general population, that we are setting young people up for failure.



When young people compare their bodies to those in porn, they are comparing themselves to unrealistic expectations, and therefore setting themselves up to feel insecure about their own bodies. Their self-esteem is likely to suffer as a result, and this can have spill-over effects into their overall sense of self-worth and their relationships with others.


On top of a lack of diversity when it comes to bodies, porn is also guilty of a lack of diversity in many other ways. Sex between a white, straight male and female is often the “default” in porn - with LGBTIQA+ sex, sex involving people of colour, people with disabilities or even overweight and obese people, being “specialist categories” and therefore often seen as “kinks”. This can perpetuate stereotypes towards marginalised groups, and create unrealistic expectations about what sex might look like for different types of people. It also places straight, cis, non-disabled, penis-in-vagina (PiV) sex above other types of sex, which contributes to issues like sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism.



3. Damaging Stereotypes: Gender-based Power Structures Perpetuated by Pornography


Most of pornography plays strongly into gendered stereotypes - men are shown as dominant and aggressive, women as submissive and passive. It’s documented that “mainstream commercial pornography has coalesced around a relatively homogenous script involving violence and female degradation” (Sun et. al. 2016). 


This gendered power imbalance is unhealthy when it is assumed to be the “default” or “correct way” to go about having sex. It can lead to sexual pressures for men, with them feeling that there is something wrong with them if they don’t feel dominant and sexual all the time, and it can make women feel that they have to be submissive and accommodating of what their partner/s want in the bedroom.


Another issue with these portrayals of male and female roles in porn, is that women are often portrayed as objects for pleasure - reinforcing a sexist ideology that women exist primarily to serve and gratify men. Porn does not generally portray people talking about and learning what feels good for each other. Instead, quite often a man will do something to a woman who will then put on a show of enjoying herself, and that’s the end of that.



4. Unsafe Encounters: How Porn Can Lead to Risky Sexual Behaviours


In a submission to parliament in 2016, the Australian Medical Association warned that the consumption of online pornography is strongly associated with risky behaviours among adolescents. 


This is unsurprising given porn is not known for healthy portrayals of consent. Generally, actors just move from one sexual act to another, rarely if ever genuinely asking their partner/s how something feels for them in a way that makes it safe for the other person to give feedback or direction. As a result, young people internalise that they should just be able to guess or figure out what their partner wants. Often they also get the message from porn that they should act like they love everything that is being done to them, regardless of how they feel. And when you stop to think about it, this makes sense - because if they never see any examples otherwise, how are they to know how to navigate these situations?


How are they to know that it’s perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable and need to shift positions during sexual encounters? Or that they aren’t actually expected to be able to read their partner’s mind and know exactly what they like?

Another concern is that pornography generally doesn’t portray safer sexual practices such as condom use, which leads to barrier methods like condoms not being seen as “sexy”, or even thought of as something that will “ruin the mood”. This absolutely doesn’t have to be the case, but without conversations and examples around how condoms can be incorporated into sex, young people are more likely to anxiously avoid them, or ask not to use them, than to give it a go. And because kinks such as choking, bondage and spanking are often portrayed in porn without any prior communication, young people may end up engaging in these behaviours purely because they assume they must be what others want, rather than because they are genuinely interested in this type of sex, and certainly without any information on whether or not they are engaging in these acts safely.


All of this means that young people may be more likely to prioritise avoiding situations they think will be awkward and striving to achieve perceived pleasure - either for themselves or their partner/s - over consent, communication and genuine pleasure.



5. Addiction: How the Developing Brain Can Get Hooked 


Online pornography use has the high potential for addiction, which can have adverse effects on the sexual development and functioning of young people (de Alarcon et. al., 2019).


Our brains continue to develop until around the age of 25, which means that neural pathways are still busy developing in childhood and teenage years. Watching pornography can trigger dopamine - a chemical associated with pleasure and reward, and also with addiction. In a young brain that is still developing, this poses an increased risk to developing an addiction and/or compulsive behaviours, and porn is no exception to this. This can have an impact on social and academic functioning, as well as leading to shame, guilt and low self-esteem.


Excessive porn consumption can also lead to desensitisation - where young people end up needing a higher level of stimulation in order to be aroused, or where they cannot be aroused or enjoy themselves during masturbation or partnered sex without the presence of porn.


Kid using device to watch porn?

Now we’ve discussed some of the risks that porn can pose to young people, but the purpose of this information is not to scare you. The goal here is to remember that young people need to be taught the skills to critically differentiate the difference between expectations and reality, and to be provided with opportunities to dispel the myths they come across in porn. They need a safe person to go to so they can be pointed in the right direction to learn healthy ways of relating - both to others and themselves.



Education and Communication: Why You Should Talk To Your Kids about Porn


Educating young people and those who work with them (parents and teachers) are recognised as key strategies for minimising harm that may stem from exposure to online pornography (Quadara et al., 2017). We can teach children strategies for dealing with explicit content online, but in order to do this we need to create the opportunity, which is why communication is vital.


If we want to prevent the potentially damaging impacts of pornography, parents need to create an open dialogue with their kids about what they’re seeing online. The eSafety Commissioner advocates that parents should encourage young people to talk about what they’ve seen online, make it clear they won’t face punishment or restrictions on their internet access for letting you know when they’ve seen explicit content (so as not to deter them from talking to you again in future), and teaching them how to respond (eSafety Commissioner, 2016). Even young people themselves recognise the importance of this, with research revealing they believe that being able to talk openly about online pornography could help reduce its negative impacts (eSafety Commissioner 2023; Goldstein 2020). 


So how do we go about fostering this open discussion? 


Opening the Door to Honest Conversations: How to Talk to Your Child About Pornography and Sex in General


It’s no surprise many parents feel uncomfortable talking to their kids about sex. We can blame our own parents for that - it was a different time and chances are for most people conversations of that nature were quickly shut down or briefly glossed over. We were told we’d learn when we were older, or that it wasn’t something for us to worry about, or potentially even told off for words or topics we brought up. 


But parents these days know better. 


In the age of smartphones and Google, those responses simply don’t cut it. If you don’t explain it, Google will - but without the nuance and age appropriateness needed to help them navigate such a confronting topic.


You want to be the one your child comes to when they see something confronting online. 

Build a Foundation of Trust: Start Early when it Comes to Sexuality Education and CyberSafety


With many young people reporting coming across pornography as early as 9 years old (Quadara et. al., 2017), we can’t stress enough that Sexuality Education needs to start early. From the moment your child has a smartphone in their hand, it’s time to work on making sure they always feel comfortable to show you something they are unsure about. The way you deal with them showing you a raunchy ad in an online game and asking for help to get rid of it, can set their expectations for how helpful you’ll be with a far more confronting pop-up or situation. 


Choose relevant moments to let them know that sometimes they might see things online that are new or confusing and that you’re always there to answer questions and to help them.


When your kid comes to you with questions about pornography or something they’ve seen online, here are strategies for navigating them productively: 


1. Start by thanking them for coming to you


We’ve already mentioned how important it is that your child knows they won’t get in trouble or have their device taken off them for coming to you with explicit material (eSafety Commissioner, 2016), but if you want them to feel truly safe and comfortable, you need to go one step further and thank them. You want your child to be able to turn to you, so showing them that you are grateful they did so will encourage them to continue to speak to you openly about difficult things. You could say things like:


“Thanks for trusting me with this.”
“Thanks for feeling safe enough to tell me.”
“I’m really glad you shared this with me. Thank you. ”

2. Manage your own reaction 


Realising that your child has seen something potentially damaging can be a very scary, confronting moment for you. But choosing to speak to you took a lot of bravery for your child, and you want to make sure that you don’t cause them to panic by showing fear, or turn them off speaking to you next time by having an overly emotional response.

If you don’t feel like you can set your feelings aside at that moment, it’s totally fine to buy yourself some time. First, thank your child for coming to you, and then say something like:


“I’m going to take some time to think about what you’ve just told me so I can give you the most helpful advice.”
“I just need a little bit of time to process that information, and then I’d love to talk about what we should do next.”
“I actually need to think about that for a bit so I can give you the best response. Let's keep talking about it a bit later today.”

Make sure that when you buy yourself time, you make it clear that this is about you needing time to do the best for your child, so they don’t feel that they have done something wrong or like they are in trouble.


3. Ask questions 


The more they talk, the less you have to. This makes it easier to buy yourself time - especially if you only need a few moments to process what you’ve just learned. Additionally, it allows you to get a full picture of what has happened rather than jumping to any assumptions.


Just make sure that you listen - you don’t want to spend the whole time thinking about what you’re going to do, and later come to realise that you didn’t actually hear what your child really needed. If you feel like you’re not able to really listen at that point in time, you might be better off buying more time with the tactics above first, before coming back to ask your child for more information.

Some questions that might be helpful:


“How are you feeling about what just happened?"
“Is there anything specific that you’d like me to do to help?”

4. Arm yourself with information 


Go away now and do some research if you have to, and plan in advance for what might be to come. Discuss with any co-parents what approach/es you are going to take, and see if they’re willing to share any experiences they’ve had so far. Join some parent groups online where you can share advice and experiences, or submit an anonymous question online. And if you find yourself in a situation you don’t feel prepared for, go back to the tactic of asking for some time to process, and prepare yourself before responding or reacting.


5. Reassure them that they’ve done the right thing by coming to you 


You’ve already started with thanking your child for opening up to you, but it’s important to reinforce this at the end of the conversation. Now that you know everything they’ve told you, it’s helpful for you to reinforce a feeling that your child is not in trouble, that you are grateful that they opened up to you and that you are there to support them. This can be as simple as saying something like:


“I really appreciate that you’re speaking to me about this.”


Remember what you’re trying to achieve when you talk to your kids about porn


In order to have the supportive, helpful, productive conversations you want to have, it’s important to not lose sight of the things you are trying to achieve when you are talking about porn with your kids.


H

There’s no one, set script for these types of conversations. Your response is going to largely be dependent on their age, what they’ve seen, and the context in which you’ve come to find out. Be sure to ask gentle questions so that you have a good understanding of what’s happened and how your child is feeling about it all, in order to make these discussions as productive as possible, and to keep an clear, open line of communication with your child.


Make a point of explaining to your child that what they’ve seen wasn’t meant for them, that it was made for adults and isn’t something that people their age are supposed to see. This is also a good opportunity to express empathy for them if they are upset, stressed or confused, by letting them know their feelings are valid.


Reassure them that they are going to be ok and you’re there to support them.

You may also need to have a discussion with your child around the laws involved with their particular situation. Was the way they came to see something only legal for consenting adults? Was the person who sent them an image too young to be sending content like this? Was someone involved in the content they saw underage? Was the content depicting an illegal act? Let your child know that laws like these are in place to protect young people, and if you think someone may be at risk of coercion or sexual harm, look up the process to follow in your specific state or territory.


Remember that these discussions are an opportunity for you to foster discussions around consent and healthy boundaries with your child/ren. You may like to explain to your child that this type of content is something that - when they are old enough - can be viewed if they wish to do so, but should be done in private, or only with a consenting adult when they are 18 or over, and in moderation. Letting them know this shows them that there is no shame in being curious, so that they don’t feel like there is something “wrong” with them for having sexual feelings.


You should also let your child know that this is not the type of content they should ever send to, or receive from, someone without asking or being asked first, and that their age and the age of the other person involved will determine whether sharing sexual imagery is legal. Reinforce that if they aren't sure of a situation they've been involved in or heard about, they should talk to you about it so you can help them decide what to do next. You can also let them know that even in situations where sending sexual images or porn is legal, people should only ever send sexual content online if the other person has indicated that they want to receive it in that moment.


Take the time to educate yourself around the laws regarding sexting and pornography in your state or territory. If you are in Victoria, you may like to review the Victorian laws around distributing intimate images, the sexting law crimes act, and the changes to Victorian laws around sexting.


Depending on the content your child has seen, you could also use it as a springboard to talk about the unrealistic representations and stereotypes that are perpetuated. Maybe talk about the fact that all bodies and genitals in the real world actually look very different - some parents like to show their children drawings from The Vulva Gallery to help demonstrate the true diversity of the human body. You might even have a conversation about the ways in which what they have seen portrays unhealthy examples of consent, and give them some examples of healthy ways of relating instead.


According to how old your child is, you could ask them their thoughts on how what they have seen contributes to issues such as sexism, or how it might lead to unhealthy sexual behaviours. You could then have a discussion together about more productive and healthier behaviours that are useful for the real world.



Supporting Your Child: What else can you do? 


Parental Controls & Monitoring: Empowering You to Protect Your Child Online


If you’ve got young children, learn to use the parental controls on their device. You can activate safe-search filters on Google and Youtube to help prevent adult content appearing in searches. If your child has a smartphone, change the settings on the App store or Google Play to control which applications can be downloaded based on age ratings or content type. These steps can help prevent accidental exposure to something your child isn’t ready to see, but don’t forget to change and update the settings regularly as your child grows and matures.


Advocate for Tighter Regulation of Pornographic Material on Platforms Children Access


With so many young people encountering explicit material accidentally, it's fair to be frustrated. Ads on content targeted at children should be age appropriate. Social media and forums should be moderated, with irrelevant, explicit content blocked or removed. It’s not too difficult and it’s not too much to ask for. Imagine if the parent of every child using Snapchat contacted the company and threatened to restrict their child’s access if they didn’t eliminate spam accounts sending links to pornographic material. I’d hazard a guess they’d get to work pretty quickly on improving the algorithms that filter illicit content. 


Does your child regularly come across inappropriate ads on a gaming platform? Why not send a quick email reporting the ads to the platform? The proliferation of explicit content can leave you feeling helpless as a parent, but in truth, there are simple things you can do to help make online platforms safer. 


Teach Critical Thinking Skills: Teaching Your Child to Spot Harmful Portrayals of Sex and Gender Roles


With years of combined Classroom teaching experience in English and Media, both of us at Let’s Talk About X can attest to the capacity of young people to think critically about the content they see. If a Year 9 can discuss the toxic masculinity in Romeo and Juliet with a bit of direction, then they’re absolutely capable of independently recognising harmful portrayals of sex and gender roles in pornography. We just need to set them up to be critical consumers outside of the classroom. Parents can start teaching their kids to think critically about the things they watch by pointing things out or asking questions. 


While it is of course important to choose age appropriate content, when you hear about or stumble across content that features portrayals that might have a negative impact, try not to simply avoid or ban your children from these. Instead, use them as an opportunity to teach the values and behaviours you do want to see. For instance, when Peppa or Mummy Pig are fat-shaming Daddy Pig, you might point out that what they’re saying could make Daddy Pig feel sad. 


When you’re watching a movie with your teen and a sex scene comes up, instead of pretending to be distracted by something in the other room, ask them if you think it’s realistic that nobody verbally checked for consent. Call out the locker room talk portrayed in a teen drama, helping your teen recognise that the young men on screen are speaking about girls as if they’re prizes to be ‘won’. Point out that TV commercial or billboard that sends unrealistic messages about what the ideal body should look like.


If we don’t draw attention to harmful portrayals, we risk young people internalising dangerous messages - the behaviours depicted become normalised.

In contrast, if we model and teach young people to think critically about what they see, read and hear, we set them up with the literacy skills that are vital when they're eventually faced with pornographic imagery. We teach them to become critical consumers of media, and we also model how to teach others. This way, when they’re sixteen and their mate texts them a pornographic video of a man treating a woman in a way that’s degrading, their reply might be to comment on how fake it looks, how bad the acting is, and how unlikely it is that a woman would enjoy that. Maybe they’ll even point out the outdated gender roles or how one person’s pleasure is being prioritised over another’s. 


If you’re the parent of a teenager you might think this sort of analysis amongst their peers seems like a stretch. But as teachers, we’ve seen this in the classroom when studying contemporary texts - if anything, many young people seem to gain confidence by having intellectual discussions liike these ones. If we teach them the skills, and teach them they should be applied to all texts they come across, then why couldn’t they come away with the ability to look critically at porn? In fact, research affirms young people's capacity for critical thinking and nuanced perspectives in relation to pornography, and suggests that pornography literacy education has the immense potential to build on and develop their skills as critical viewers (eSafety Commissioner, 2023; Dawson 2019; Dawson et al. 2019; Goldstein 2020).


A community-wide approach: Advocate for Comprehensive Relationships and Sexuality Education in schools 


When it comes to Respectful Relationships and Sexuality Education, the research is clear about the need for collaboration between schools, parents and the wider community (OurWatch, 2016). It is also clear that schools present an incredible opportunity for primary prevention of sexual harm through education. Yet too many schools shy away from authentically embedding Sexuality Education into their curriculums due to fear of parent backlash.


The truth is, most parents are supportive of Relationships and Sexuality Education (Hendricks et. al., 2024). Far too much heed is given to the single parent who might call the school and complain that their child is learning about sex, because they’re the only parent the school ever hears from. Think about it, how many parents are calling the school to ask for more Sexuality Education, or to give positive feedback on the learning already taking place? 


Parents who want to protect their children from the damaging effects of pornography need to support schools more loudly and advocate for their child’s right to a comprehensive, age-appropriate Relationships and Sexuality Education. Simple measures like a phone call or email to the principal telling them you want to see more of it, or suggesting they check out student workshops and staff training like the programs we run can make a huge difference. A letter to the Education Minister calling for more funding to train teachers in this field could help ensure teachers are better equipped in this important space. 


We can’t deny that with pornography more accessible than ever, young people are learning about sex from media designed to entertain and gratify, not to educate. It’s vital that we combat this with formal, reputable Sexuality Education, and we need to support our schools to provide this. 



Building a Healthy Future: Raising Sex-Positive, Communicative, Informed Children in a Digital World


Pornography isn’t going away, and neither are the devices and platforms young people share or access it on. That’s why now, more than ever, it's vital that parents foster open, sex-positive communication around pornography.


To ignore it won’t do any good. To simply demonise and discourage its consumption won’t do any good.

It is vital that we help young people understand what they’re looking at when they come across pornography. We need to talk to them about it, so they can understand the ways in which it is unrealistic and damaging. We need to equip them with the communication skills and understanding of consent to set and respect boundaries around it. We need to not only teach them the laws and restrictions around it, but help them develop the agency to keep themselves and others safe in a world where those laws often aren’t followed.


By teaching a greater literacy around pornography and the skills to set and respect boundaries, we can help to protect young people from harm. 



Mel Brush [he/they] and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs [she/they] are experts in fostering a culture of consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion. They run training and deliver keynote speeches for schools, parents and workplaces.




References:


Australian Medical Association (AMA), (2016) Submission 11, p. 2. Retrieved from: https://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=11909af4-88eb-476b-9c40-f756e69e0f20&subId=409256


Dawson K (2019) ‘Educating Ireland: promoting porn literacy among parents and children’, Porn Studies, 6(2):268–271.


Dawson K, Nic Gabhainn S and MacNeela P (2019) ‘Dissatisfaction with school sex education is not associated with using pornography for sexual information’, Porn Studies, 6(2):245–257.


de Alarcón, R., de la Iglesia, J. I., Casado, N. M., & Montejo, A. L. (2019). Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don't-A Systematic Review. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(1), 91. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8010091



eSafety Commissioner (2023). Accidental, unsolicited and in your face. Young people’s encounters with online pornography: a matter of platform responsibility, education and choice. Canberra: Australian Government.


Goldstein A (2020) ‘Beyond porn literacy: drawing on young people’s pornography narratives to expand sex education pedagogies’, Sex Education, 20(1):59–74.



Hendriks et. al. (2024) Support for school-based relationships and sexual health education: a national survey of Australian parents, Sex Education, 24:2, 208-224, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2023.2169825


Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. (2016). “What can I do if my child sees content that’s offensive”. Retrieved from 


Our Watch (2016). Respectful relationships education in schools: The beginnings of change. Final evaluation report. https://www.ourwatch.org.au/resource/final-evaluation-report-respectful-

relationships-education-in-schools-the-beginnings-of-change/.


Quadara, A., El-Murr. A., & Latham, J. (2017). The effects of pornography on children and young people: An evidence scan. Melbourne, Australian Institute of Family Studies.


Sun, C. et al. (2016). Pornography and the male sexual script: An analysis of consumption and sexual relations. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 45(4), 983-994.




コメント


bottom of page