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How to talk to your children about pornography: An age-by-age guide

Experts say to start with questions to learn what kids know.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

For children, finding pornography has become a lot easier than it was for previous generations, who stumbled onto some parent’s stash of magazines or switched to the wrong cable channel late at night. Even a researching an innocent school project can lead to a child running into pornography.

“Children can happen on this stuff accidentally,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting and resilience expert, told TODAY Parents. “All you need is just one school project on beavers and you’ll never be the same.”

While many parents balk at the idea of discussing porn with their children, experts say it’s important to address it — especially before their children find it.

“Everybody defines pornography differently so a general question for adults is: How do you define pornography for yourself? What content are you talking about when you are thinking about talking to a kid about this?" Gilboa said.

The conversation often needs to start earlier than parents want.

“It is sooner than you think because it is as soon as your child or one of your child's friends has unfettered access to the internet … you need to have said, ‘Hey, there's some content online that's not OK, stuff you could get to that's dangerous for you,’” Gilboa said.

The parenting experts provide advice on how to address it with children of every age.

Preschool and kindergarten

Parents don’t need to bring up pornography per se with younger children, but this is a good time to start discussing concepts related to it.

“It’s really important for parents to start labeling body parts by body part types, such as penis and vagina, and not give them cutesy names,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, told TODAY Parents. “It’s really important for parents to be comfortable to talk about what body parts are and also about being what naked is and what modesty is.”

Parents can discuss with their children about who can see their naked bodies (the child themself, their doctor, maybe a parent) and start introducing the idea of consent — people cannot look at you naked, take your picture or touch you without permission. But parents should start displaying good habits for their children.

“Model great online behavior and great picture taking behavior, asking people before you take a picture of them, asking them, even little kids, before posting a picture of them,” Gilboa said. “Parents can say, ‘Every time you search something new (online) I need to be sitting next to you because it can be dangerous like crossing the street.'”

Elementary school

While parents of elementary school children can continue having similar conversations as those for younger children, there is a chance that school-aged kids have seen pornography either accidentally or thanks to an older sibling or classmate. Instead of making assumptions, ask questions.

“I always ask open questions and kind of play dumb like I don’t know. But kids will tell you,” Nunez aid. “Some kids think that kissing is having sex. So, it’s really important at that point to clarify what they know and what that means to them.”

It’s important to avoid shame in these conversations. If children feel ashamed they might be less likely to come to their parents to talk. At this age, some rules on how to handle seeing pornography might help.

“Give them some guidelines about how to act when they find it. Instead of saying ‘Just get off the site,’ say ‘Bring it to me,’” Gilboa said. “Just like if you were to find a piece of broken glass on the floor, I don’t want you to pick it up yourself. But I want you to come and get me right away.'”

Middle school

Again, starting with questions can help parents understand what level their children are at. Parents might want to ask if children have heard of pornography or porn.

“You might even say 'Have you heard of dirty videos?'” Gilboa said. “If they say, ‘Yes,’ ask them, ‘Can you give me your thoughts about that?’ Keep it as neutral as you can to draw them out.”

While not passing judgement helps children feel comfortable approaching parents to talk about pornography, Gilboa said it is OK to set rules and really encourage children to think critically about it.

“I would suggest a follow up of, ‘Do you feel it is reasonable for middle schoolers to be engaging that in any way?” she said. “It’s reasonable ... to make a rule about this but it is almost important to start talking about why and the what. Just having a rule for a child this age isn’t going to last as long as having a meaningful conversation.”

Middle school students might need help in navigating their friends.

“Most first explorations of pornography happens with your peers, not alone,” Gilboa said. “They might need strategies about what they might say or do when someone says, ‘Check this out.’”

High school

While starting the conversation with a question works well with high schoolers, parents can be much more specific.

“I would say to them, ‘Hey what are your thoughts about pornography?' as non-judgmentally as you can,” Gilboa said. “You may get an earful.”

It’s important to follow up with lots of questions about their thoughts, including, "Why do you feel that way?"

“Even if they come back to you with an outlook that aligns exactly with your own, a high school student is ready for a more nuanced conversation and you will get a lot more insight if you follow up with that second question,” Gilboa said.

It’s important to stress to children that they cannot send naked pictures of themselves or others to their friends or romantic partners. Even pictures shared with two underage people is child pornography.

“Kids don’t understand that sending pictures on Snapchat or their text message is illegal, that it's considered pornography,” Nunez said. “I always have an open and honest conversation with my clients that they are to not send pictures to anybody.”