Parents have learned to expect, and often dread, two sex talks with their children: the early lesson about the “birds and the bees” and the more delicate discussion of how to navigate a healthy sexual life as a young adult.
But now they are wrestling with a third: the pornography talk.
There is no set script, and no predictable moment for the conversation. It can happen at as early an age as 6 or 7, when a child may not yet understand the basic mechanics of sex. It is typically set off by a child’s accidental wanderings online or the deliberate searches of a curious teenager on a smartphone, laptop, tablet or one of the other devices that have made it nearly impossible to grow up without encountering sexually explicit material. Even a quick Twitter or Facebook search reveals that older students report seeing pornography on others’ laptops or phones in class, usually with an “OMG” attached.
As Elizabeth Schroeder, the executive director of Answer, a national sex-education organization based at Rutgers University, said: “Your child is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.”
Parents, then, are faced with a new digital-era quandary: is it better to try to shield children from explicit content, or to accept that it is so ubiquitous that it has become a fact of life, requiring its own conversation?
Conventional wisdom has held that strict rules about screen time and installing filtering software will solve the problem. But given the number of screens, large and small, that fill the average American home, those strategies may be as effective as building a bunker in the sand while the tide rolls in.
Some parents coach their children to click away from explicit material as soon as it pops up, while others try to be as open as possible, filtering content when children are younger and relying on looser controls for teenagers coupled with frank conversations.
“I know how I reacted when my parents were kind of like, ‘Oh, no, this is bad!’ ” said Chaz, a software consultant and father of two who lives near Minneapolis. (Like many parents interviewed for this article, he asked that his last name not be used to protect his children’s privacy.)
He recalled vividly how, as a 14-year-old boy, he was desperate for a glimpse of Playboy magazine. “It is the height of foolishness to assume my son is not like that,” he said.
The pornography talk he had not long ago with his 12-year-old son was prompted by an iTunes receipt for an app showing 1,001 pictures of breasts.
Rather than lashing out or calling attention to the purchase, he sat his son down, asked if he and his friends were interested in that kind of content and then explained that he had just set up a blocking filter, OpenDNS, on their home network to keep out the worst kinds of content.
It’s natural to be curious, he told his son, adding that if he planned to look for explicit content, he should stick to one particular site he had allowed his son access to, which had pictures of naked women that were not much racier than what might appear in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
Others who assumed their children would eventually search for pornography said that they had tried to teach them to be, in effect, responsible consumers: they showed them how to be discreet, erase browsing histories and avoid malware, and they instructed them never to share pictures of themselves or explicit content with others, especially younger children. (Experts caution that showing minors sexually explicit material could, in some states, violate “harmful to minors” laws.)
But many parents take a different approach. Patti Thomson, for example, said she believed that her duty as a mother was to shield her five children, ages 7 to 15, from explicit content, even if it meant hours spent poring over user manuals and access controls for the computers at her home in Reading, Mass.
“Nowadays, it’s insane,” she said, horrified at the range of pornographic material available online. “I want to really protect them until they’re at an age when they can take it in.”
When she discovered that the iPod Touch devices she gave her children for Christmas could be used to surf the Web, she was so upset that she took them back until she could figure out how to deactivate the Internet connection. She also called Apple to argue for a warning label on the box.
Months later, she was delighted to discover a mobile Web browser, Mobicip — designed for devices like the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad and Android OS-based devices like the Kindle Fire — that is easy to set up quickly and blocks content either by age or by categories like pornography, chat or games.
Sometimes danger lurks where parents don’t expect it. Jeanne Sager, a blogger, assumed it was safe to let her 6-year-old daughter, Jillian, watch “My Little Pony” videos. But when she left the room for a moment, she heard something that didn’t sound anything like a cartoon.
Her daughter had stumbled upon a graphic video by clicking on a related link listed to the right of the video player. It is one of the most common complaints of parents who discover that their children have been exposed to sexually explicit material online — that a few clicks on YouTube can land a child in unexpected territory, like a subgenre of pornography where popular cartoon characters, like Batman or Mario Bros., are dubbed over with alternate soundtracks and editing to show the characters engaging in explicit acts.
In this case, Ms. Sager simply told her daughter, “There are some videos we shouldn’t be watching,” and made sure she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong. Later, she set up a separate computer login for her daughter, with bookmarks to her favorite sites, and no YouTube allowed.
For J. Carlos, a writer from Pasadena, Calif., who also asked that his last name not be used, the need for the pornography conversation emerged when he and his 14-year-old son were hiking in the mountains of Virginia. While borrowing his son’s smartphone to look for a restaurant, he noticed the search history, he said, and immediately realized, “Oh, O.K., it’s time to have that conversation.”
He wished they’d had it earlier, he said. The search terms that popped up seemed both naïve and potentially troublesome, and he worried that his son might unintentionally violate child-pornography laws by looking for images of girls his own age.
But the conversation that followed was, according to sex educators to whom it was recounted, an ideal response.
Rather than angrily confronting his son on the mountaintop, J. Carlos waited for a calm moment when they could have a casual conversation. He emphasized that it was natural to be interested in sex, but that pornographic images are not representative of relationships and that his son should feel comfortable asking him about anything he had seen.
“He asked me what things were like when I was younger,” J. Carlos said. “He felt really safe talking to me about it, so that felt really great.”
Many parents don’t react so calmly, said Ms. Schroeder, of the Answer organization.
They may wonder what is wrong with their child or if what the child has seen will forever traumatize him or her. Neither assumption is correct, she said. The greater potential harm — and shame — can come from a parent’s reaction.
“If we flip out, freak out or go crazy about it, we’re giving a very set message,” she said, one that may prevent children from feeling they can ask their parents questions without being judged or punished.
But the most common mistake parents make, experts said, is to wait to have the conversation until some incident precipitates it.
“All of this is so much easier if it’s taking place not as the first conversation parents have about sex, but the 10th or the 20th,” said Marty Klein, a family and sex therapist in Palo Alto, Calif., who encourages parents to be frank and direct in conversations with children.
Richard Esplin, a Mormon and father of four in Lindon, Utah, said he has had regular conversations with his children, unlike his own parents, who talked to him about sex rarely — once when he was a teenager, and again before his wedding.
“That’s not the way my wife and I do things,” he said, “because it’s always coming up.”
From an actor in a bathing suit to videos of kissing, he added, the culture creates many opportunities for his family to discuss questions of modesty and sexuality within the context of their religious beliefs.
“They know they don’t go to YouTube without me, because there are videos on YouTube where people don’t wear clothes,” he said. He explained to his children, who range in age from 2 to 8, that the people in the videos are actors who are “pretending to be married.”
GIVEN that most parents don’t devote much advance thought to this particular conversation, however, the words they choose often don’t reflect what they wish they had said after the fact.
One family’s improvised conversation raised questions in hindsight about how boys and girls are treated differently.
Bonnie, a university administrator in North Carolina with a teenage son and two stepdaughters, realized only after discussing the matter that she and her husband had been sending unintended messages by emphasizing safety and self-protection with the girls and limits with her son.
“Later, we realized how terribly, albeit unconsciously, sexist that was,” she said.
Dana, a divorced mother of three in Massachusetts, assumed her sons would seek out pornography and thought it was normal for her 9-year-old to want to look at pictures of naked women. But when he was 13, he asked why women liked to be choked. She then realized she needed to explain to him that pornography isn’t real and that the people are paid actors. She compared it to WWE wrestling matches, which her son knows are fake.
Unlike many parents, Dana had an opportunity to help her son understand what had upset him, which is why therapists like Mr. Klein say that keeping the lines of conversation open is the best safeguard against any potential harm. “We’re not going back to 1950 here,” he added, “to a world where there are no mobile devices, no apps.”
Even Chaz, the father in Minnesota who was careful to block his home network, said he had accepted that he could not protect his child from everything.
Not long ago, he decided to disable Internet access to his son’s laptop and phone for a few hours a day, hoping it would nudge his son to play outdoors instead. He didn’t anticipate the alternative. One day, when he got home from work, his son informed him that the Internet had been erratic lately, but that it was no problem — he had just logged onto a neighbor’s unfiltered Wi-Fi connection, where the entire Web awaited.