Should We Teach Kids About Porn?

With pornography potentially just a click away from our kids' eyes online, should we explain what it is? And how?

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While in the "olden days" kids may have sneaked a peek at their dad's nudie mag or happened upon a racy scene on late-night Skinemax, today's tweens and teens have a frightening amount of sexual images and videos just a click away. Sure, you've installed safety filters on your computers and devices, but it's almost impossible to control all Internet access. Much like you probably had a friend who stole a naughty VHS tape from his dad's collection to watch at a sleepover, your kid probably has a friend who will find a way around Internet parental controls to see and share the forbidden. In fact, a recent U.K. study revealed more than half of British tweens have viewed porn before age 16.

So, should we explain what this porn stuff is before our kids eventually see it? We asked pediatric and adolescent health expert Robert Lehman, M.D., co-founder of Great Conversations, a Seattle-based organization that offers classes and presentations on puberty and sexuality to families, preteens, and professionals, for his advice about this controversial topic.

Parents.com: Is pornography a topic you discuss in your classes and presentations?

Dr. Robert Lehman: The topic frequently comes up as a question from a parent on how to talk with their son about porn, or less commonly, from a boy, asking exactly what porn is.

What do you say to the parents?

To parents who want to shield their kids from it through Internet filters and prohibitions, I say neither of those work. The entire world of the Internet is available on his cell phone, or on his friend's cell phone. It's almost unavoidable to inadvertently click on something that will take one to a pornography site.

The parents also need to have a conversation first before they start to talk to their kid. Moms often say, 'We have a problem. I hate pornography and I have lectured my kid about that,' but then I see dad roll his eyes and say, 'Come on, it's just a guy thing.' That's conflicting messages from parents who need to be giving a similar message.

What do you suggest parents tell their kids about pornography, or how do you explain it to the preteens in your classes?

I say pornography is pictures or videos of people in sexual positions or doing sexual acts. I say pornography tricks people into thinking this is how people look and what sex is like, but it isn't true. That being sexual means much, much more than just a sexual act and involves a level of intimacy completely lost on a screen.

Parents can go into an explanation of why the people do this, why some people find it exciting, why some people find it disgusting and bad, and how they feel about it.

At what age would it be appropriate to begin talking about pornography?

Our classes are for boys and girls ages 10 to 12, but part of the conversation about pornography can happen quite early in a different way by setting up that people should not touch people in ways that make them uncomfortable or harms them.

What are some reasons parents can say they don't like pornography? Because it objectifies women, or because the actors and actresses aren't being treated properly?

All of those, plus it is not real. It is staged. It is as staged as a sitcom which doesn't show real people doing real things either, and one may consider it entertainment, but it's not real sex. It can set one up to have expectations of what sex is going to be like that is going to be disappointing because that's not the way sex really is. In fact, there's many good things about sex, about the intimacy that can go with sex, that you never get from pornography. So there are good things that it's leaving out, and there are bad things that it's doing in terms of setting up unrealistic expectations.

I think it's a mistake for parents to completely censure something with all the bad things without ever discussing any of the positives. It begins to affect the credibility of the parent because the kid will begin to wonder, 'Well, wait a minute, my parent only told me this is all bad. Why do so many people do it?' But parents can say, 'It personally offends me, I don't like to see it in my house.'

Would talking to girls about porn be any different than talking to boys?

Statistics show that males are more likely to search for pornography, but girls need to know what it is as much as boys do. Girls are more likely to be the object of the pornography, so what that means for girls and women would be something I would want to include in my conversation with girls—about why do girls and women do this, and why boys and men are so interested when [girls] may be not so. I've had girls express, "I don't get it."

And what do you say to them?

Well, it's a long conversation, but that men and women may have differences in their expression of sexuality or their desires. I say, in general, males can find a sexual outlet by viewing porn—with all its negatives, with all the facts that it's not real, that the people don't look like normal people that you would encounter, that it doesn't have all the rest of the parts that make a good sexual relationship.

How to Talk to Kids About Sex

What advice can parents give to their kids so they know what to do when they do inevitably encounter pornography with their friends and feel peer pressure to watch it? Or want to educate their friends about it?

Let your kid know that he is going to talk to friends who find this exciting, and have not had this conversation with their parents, so he may be a leader among his friends on knowledge about this stuff, and he may not be listened to very well or admired by his friends for [not wanting to watch it].

If kids are curious about sex is there any safe material for them follow up on their curiosity?

Yes. There are many books on puberty and growing up that are on the market, so take your child to a bookstore, ask for the puberty section, and take every book off the shelf. Spread them out on the table, and the two of you laugh your way through them. Some of the books are going to be too immature, some will have too much text. The one that hits your kid right on the developmental stage will be the one that makes most sense for your child at the moment.

You can have your child just read it, you can read it with him or her, or you can read it first and then go over some of the topics. I would not do it the way my mother did it, which is buy one of those books herself and leave it on the coffee table hoping that I would just glance through it. Of course, I just avoided the entire living room as long as that book was there.

The Internet is another resource, and it's got a lot of good stuff in addition to a lot of not-so-good stuff. Generally, things that have a .edu extension that are connected with a university tend to be scientific based, evidence based, fairly neutral in their advice, and reliable and credible.