If your child has spent any unsupervised time online this summer, chances are he or she has encountered content that would formerly have been considered “adult.” Despite the best efforts on the part of parents, provocative sexual material is readily available, not only from web sites that specialize in pornography, but also in music, videos, TV sitcoms, advertising and even cell phone apps. A recent New York Times article told the story of a father startled to discover that his 12-year-old son had downloaded “pocket porn”, a cell phone app that consisted of nothing but photos of women’s breasts.
A parent’s first impulse may be the equivalent of putting a hand over a child’s eyes but that is, at best, a temporary measure. Instead, parents have to figure out how to help children develop healthy attitudes about sexuality despite the prevalence of unhealthy images. In some ways, this is like teaching kids to eat a nutritious diet. Junk food is ubiquitous, so you have to coach your child about how to make wise choices in a world full of things that look tempting but aren’t very healthy.
Conversations about sex are, admittedly, more challenging than conversations about food choices so it will help to have your goal firmly in mind. Marty Klein, a family therapist and author of “Sexual Intelligence,” argues convincingly that what most people want from sexual relationships is closeness and pleasure. Both are more likely in trusting relationships, so the question is really how to help children develop the capacity for that kind of commitment. If you have kids, chances are you already have some thoughts about how to build a decent relationship with a sexual partner. The goal is to share your insights and your values (but not your anxieties) with your child. Here are some suggestions:
Take a deep breath. Your child is going to encounter sexual content. You don’t know when and you don’t know where. According to experts, exposure to sexual materials is not necessarily traumatic. The trauma occurs when parents overreact, making a child feel ashamed or even deviant. You are more likely to have a calm conversation if you prepare yourself by talking to other parents and doing a little reading (a helpful list of websites, organized by developmental stage, is available at answer.rutgers.edu/page/websites/). The more you can normalize conversations about sex, the more likely you are to have a positive influence on your child.
Point out the good stuff. Often kids take an interest in sexually explicit materials because they want information about what bodies look like and how they fit together. Although you’ll want to encourage your child to come to you with questions and concerns, you can also point out web sites that provide frank, accurate and reliable content. Kidshealth.org gives authoritative answers to common pre-teen questions in the Sexual Health section of their Teen portal. Information suitable for older teens is available at iwannaknow.org and sexetc.org.
Differentiate between sex and pornography. Sex is an utterly natural part of adult life. Pornography is … well, there’s no single message about pornography because the word is used to describe everything from simple pictures of naked people to violent depictions of criminal acts. For young children, the best strategy is to say that pornography is for adults, so you’re going to install filters that will block it (free filters for computers and cellphones are available at www.k9webprotection.com). Tell your child that if, despite your efforts, something sexy pops up on a screen, he or she can talk to you or just click “close.”
Once children get to puberty, they deserve more nuanced conversations about explicit sexual images. Instead of labeling them “bad,” you can talk about how pornography varies a great deal and adults have different opinions about it. Some see explicit sexual material as a form of fantasy and entertainment that should be freely available to adults; others believe that pornography interferes with genuine intimacy by creating unreasonable expectations. Share your point of view and listen to what your child has to say.
Take a hard line on violence. Exposure to violent sexual images is harmful to both boys and girls. One study found that girls who watched violent pornography were more likely to become victims of assault while boys were more likely to engage in sexual harassment and aggression. Parents should be consistent in limiting access to movies, video games and web sites that feature sexual violence. Make it clear to both boys and girls that coercion should never be part of a sexual relationship.
Talk about feelings. Sexual images give the impression that sex is about bodies. That’s only part of the story. People who have satisfying sexual relationships are also attuned to feelings — both their own and those of their partner. Parents can help kids become aware of their own emotions by regularly asking “How does that make you feel?” Klein recommends using this question to help children explore emotional responses to everything from a provocative photo on Facebook to a sexualized version of a favorite cartoon. Do the images seem confusing, exciting, upsetting, funny, intimidating? Cultivate empathy by asking how other people, including the characters in a movie or the models in a photograph, might be feeling.
Perhaps the best way to inoculate your child from crass sexuality online and in the media is to nurture loving, positive, emotionally open relationships in your own home. Recent research from the Netherlands found that boys and girls who have strong connections with parents and friends are more likely to develop committed romantic relationships. That, of course, is the kind of relationship that is “adult” in the fullest and best sense of the word.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is currently at work on a book about ethics for families and other cooperative systems. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.