Parents may have a range of questions about how to talk with their young people about pornography.
Remember, parents will bring a range of perspectives to this issue – for example, their different cultural or religious norms, values or beliefs may come to bear on how they engage with this issue.
Below are some suggestions for how practitioners can respond to some of parents’ frequently asked questions and common roadblocks.
The aim is to support you to understand and respond to some of the questions you may face when you seek to incorporate a focus on pornography into your work with young people and their parents.
When communicating with parents, consider adapting the below responses in order for them to be culturally appropriate and accessible to the families you work with.
There is no certain method for preventing your child from seeing pornography, but there are things you can do to minimise both the likelihood they will see it and the negative impacts if and when they do.
Exposure can be minimised with strategies such as installing an internet filter at home, utilising parental control options on your child’s devices, establishing an agreement about device use and ensuring that access to devices is —see the for more advice on this.
You can help minimise pornography’s negative effects by building your child’s critical media literacy, so they are able to critique the kinds of messages pornography conveys. See for more information.
If your child has been exposed to pornography at a friend’s house, it can be difficult to work out how to respond. You may be tempted to ignore it or just to limit your child’s contact with that friend. There is also the question about whether to talk with the parents. This may feel quite challenging, particularly if you don’t know them well.
You may be concerned about how they will respond – to you, or their child – or how it may impact on your child. Will they believe you? Will they be defensive, embarrassed, or angry? They may have no idea that their child has seen pornography – and is potentially exposing other young people to pornography.
By raising the issue with them you are not only protecting your own child’s interests by hopefully reducing the risk that it will happen again, but also, potentially, those of your child’s friend, by giving their parents the opportunity to support them.
The kind of conversation you have with the parent of your child’s friend might vary depending on factors such as your child’s age, the closeness of their friendship and your existing relationship with the parents.
Whatever the context, aim not to blame or shame the child or the parents. Acknowledge that sexual curiosity is normal and understandable, and pornography is incredibly easy to access by accident, as well as intentionally. Share your concern that pornography’s influence can be harmful, and you don’t think it is suitable for young people. Let them know that you thought it best that they know that this has happened so they can support their child – and also help prevent that kind of thing occurring again. Suggest resources the parents may be interested to use to understand the issues and how they can talk with their child.
Most of the messages about pornography that young people need to hear are the same, regardless of gender. For example:
- anything sexual should only ever happen when the people involved give consent
- sex should feel good for those involved. For young people, working out what they enjoy is likely to take time, attention and good communication.
The basic principle is that they need to be respectful – and that they should expect to be treated with respect. This should underpin conversations about relationships and sexuality with any young person.
But because expectations for boys and girls (from their peers, partners and society, more broadly) can be very different, and because pornography’s depictions are highly gendered (men are depicted as being in control and women as submissive to whatever men want), it may be important to emphasise some messages more with boys than girls, and vice versa.
For example, boys are more likely than girls to be active users of pornography and to have peers who expect them to watch it. They are also more likely to initiate something they have seen in pornography, with a partner. Given this, with boys, you might explore in more detail issues such as:
- how to respond to peer pressure to watch porn
- the problems with pornography’s representations of men as aggressive and in control, and women as being there for whatever men want to do to them
- the ways pornography can shape sexual tastes
- that most women don’t like – or want to do – much of what they might see in pornography
- that both they, and anyone they are sexual with, deserve to be treated with respect and care
- the critical importance of consent and mutual pleasure, including that it is important that they learn to check in with a partner about what they like and want and never pressure anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.
Girls are more likely than boys to be pressured by a partner to watch pornography or to engage in sexual practices that their partner has seen in pornography. Pornography can create an expectation – in both girls and boys – that women should be happy to do whatever men want, including being treated aggressively. Given this, with girls, you might explore in more detail issues such as:
- they deserve to be treated with respect and care
- how to respond to pressure from a partner to watch pornography
- how to respond to pressure from a partner to engage in something they don’t want to do.
If your child is attracted to people of the same sex – something you may or may not know about them – all of these messages may be relevant. Emphasise to your child that you’re really happy to talk with them – or to help them get support – about anything they are concerned about. This may help your child feel more comfortable to discuss their sexuality with you in future.
Discovering that your child has seen pornography may create a range of responses in you – from anger to fear, embarrassment or resignation – potentially all at the same time! Aim to stay calm and remind yourself that curiosity is normal and healthy. Don’t make assumptions about how or why your child came to see pornography. Do some preparation and use the opportunity to support your child to develop good critical thinking about pornography, sex and relationships.
It is quite common for young people to see pornography – accidentally or intentionally. Nearly half (48%) of young men have seen pornography by the age of 13 and nearly half (48%) of young women by the age of 15.¹ That doesn’t make them depraved. Remember that it is natural and healthy for young people to be curious about all sorts of things – including bodies and sex.
Sexual interest and curiosity are not a problem; the problem is that pornography is so easy to find, and it conveys a whole range of harmful messages – including that it is common for pornography to depict quite extreme levels of degradation and violence against women. That can be disturbing – for you and your child.
The important thing is to support your child to realise that pornography is unrealistic – and to help them understand that sex should be consenting, respectful and feel good for everyone involved. See the tip sheet for more information.
Young people can have a wide range of responses to pornography. They may feel curious, fascinated, aroused, confused, disgusted or disturbed – or any combination of feelings. While they are often more resilient than we imagine, we shouldn’t assume that they have not been affected. Parents can play an important role in minimising any negative impacts on their child.
Some young people may feel disturbed or distressed by the pornography they have seen, or the context in which they have seen it. For example, they may feel upset by exposure to scenes depicting sexualised aggression or degradation, or because they were pressured to view material they didn’t want to see. They may be concerned about their own pornography use – for example, that they are watching more pornography than they want to, but find it hard to stop, or they are drawn to content they find disturbing.
Below are some steps parents can take if your child discloses that pornography has negatively impacted them:
1. Believe them and demonstrate compassion and respect.
2. Listen carefully to what it is that they feel concerned about and gently ask questions to support you to better understand. Remember that there may be more going on for them than what they feel comfortable to say at the time. Things to be consider include:
- Are they experiencing pressure to watch pornography?
- Are they concerned about how much pornography they are watching, or the sort of material they are drawn to?
- Do they feel disturbed by something they have seen?
- Is the pornography they have seen raising feelings and concerns for them related to other traumas, such as sexual abuse?
- Has someone pressured or forced them to do something from pornography that they didn’t want to do? Or are they experiencing that kind of pressure now?
- Have they pressured or forced someone else to do something they didn’t want to do?
- Do they feel upset by the sorts of messages pornography conveys and what it means for their own relationships and sexuality?
3. Validate their concerns and assure them you will support them to work out what they can do to address them.
4. Clarify what it is your child would like. For example, do they want to stop using pornography and need help to do so? Do they need support to respond to pressure from a partner to copy something from pornography? Do they want support to stop thinking about pornography they have seen that they found disturbing? Are they concerned about how pornography is at odds with their cultural or religious beliefs or values?
5. Support them to come up with strategies to address their concern. If you are not confident about how to best support them or what sort of information or advice to provide, let them know the steps you will take – such as that you will look into what supports are available – and give them a timeframe for doing so.
6. Follow up promptly. If there is any delay in getting the information you are seeking, check in with how they are going and provide them with updates so that they feel supported in the meantime.
Some young people may not seek support – because they don’t feel like it is an issue – but that doesn’t mean they don’t need your input! Parents can help minimise the harms by building their child’s critical thinking skills, respectful relationships skills and resilience.
Don’t let fear that a conversation about pornography won’t go how you hoped prevent you from having the conversation and supporting your child. Pornography is a sensitive topic and it’s understandable that you might feel awkward or nervous about how it will go, but pornography has become a topic we can’t afford to ignore.
A bit of preparation will go a long way and you might surprise yourself by what you can do. Remember that it’s not about getting it perfect and it’s not a one-off conversation. If it doesn’t go as you had hoped, there is always next time! See for more information.