Porn at six: How to talk to kids about sex

 
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My daughter was six years old when she first encountered online pornography. It was during her “Angelina Ballerina” phase when one day, while she was looking for ballerina images on the internet, a pornographic image popped up on her screen. She got a fright and shut her screen, but didn’t say anything to her dad, who was sitting right next to her but missed seeing what she’d seen.

Research suggests that the average age of first exposure to pornography is getting earlier. Many parents tend to assume that careful monitoring of their children’s online activities can prevent unintentional exposure to pornography. This, however, is not true. Most experts agree that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” a child will encounter online porn or inappropriate content.

A friend of mine recently told me that her eight-year-old son came home from his Christian school and said, “Mummy, my friend showed me pictures of naked ladies on his phone.” When she responded, “Well, that’s OK, you’ve seen Mummy naked before,” her son replied, “Oh no, Mummy, these were fancy women.”

Considering the many documented harms of pornography to young people’s brains, as well as the reality that parents cannot prevent early exposure, even through very careful monitoring, what’s a parent to do? How can we protect our children from explicit sexual content, pornography use and sexual violence?

First, when the parent-child relationship is based on love and trust, children feel safe talking to their parents about their lives, including confusing or disturbing experiences. Furthermore, when parents and children have a positive relationship, children are open to parental influence. If we want our kids and young adults to talk to us about their lives—and if we want to have permission to speak into their lives—we must nurture a loving, trust-based relationship with them. As you contemplate how you might be more intentional in doing this in your home, never forget that, for children, LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E.

Second, begin conversations about sexuality at an earlier age. As parents, we’re often reluctant to talk to our children about sex. Usually, this is due to our own parents’ inability to talk to us, and so we have no model or vocabulary for these conversations. As a result, many parents fear they will say too much or the wrong thing. But when we say nothing, we are still teaching our children important lessons about sexuality: we’re teaching them that we have nothing to say about sex; that Scripture and our faith community have nothing to say about sex; and that, evidently, God must have nothing to say about sex. And so our children learn that the messages they hear from their friends and from the media are true. The reality is that there is a high chance our children will be exposed to sexual activity or sexually explicit content and so if we’re not in conversation with them, we miss the opportunity to be able to contextualise or dialogue with them in the safety of the family home. We don’t want our children’s only source of learning about sexual intercourse to be the playground.

This results in their being caught between “two competing narratives”.1 When sex is a taboo topic in the home, children learn that sex is bad. This “traditional” narrative has roots in Greek dualism, which dichotomised the body and soul, declaring the body bad and the soul good. Adopted by the medieval Christian church, this narrative continues to influence the way in which many Christians think and talk about sex.

An alternative narrative emphasises personal satisfaction, freedom and self-expression, and declares that sex is great and it’s about me! This “individualistic” narrative, unrelentingly taught by popular culture, has given rise to “cheap sex”, i.e., sex that is readily available through hook-up culture and free, high-quality sexual content—no relationship required.2

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Being engaged in your child’s digital education is an important part of protecting them. Photo by sofatutor on Unsplash

Consider your own experience. How did you first learn about the story of sex? For most of us, our earliest lessons about sexuality are learned within the tension between these two competing narratives. But neither of these narratives represents the relational story of sex outlined in Scripture, which teaches that sex is good (Genesis 1:31; 1 Timothy 4:4); that it’s about relationship (Genesis 2:22, 25); and that it’s about God (1 Corinthians 6:19,20).

My daughter was six years old when she first encountered online pornography. But because we’d worked on intentionally overcoming our awkwardness around the topic, we’d been talking to her about sex from a young age. And because the message she was hearing from us was that sex is good, that it’s about relationship and that it’s about God, she already had a mental framework for processing the pictures she saw that day.

Third, learn all that you can about how to talk with children about pornography, especially younger children. In our home, the conversations that began in early childhood continued, so that when a high school friend told my daughter about a struggle with sexually explicit material, she knew she could bring that conversation home too. I wish we’d been more equipped to talk about pornography addiction, about its impact on relationships and about how to help someone struggling with such an addiction. But while we really didn’t know how to talk about these things, we worked on keeping the communication lines open and muddled through somehow, learning together with our children.

Finally, there are plenty of online tools to help with child safety online, including parental controls over internet use and tools for monitoring a child’s online activity and social media accounts. With the availability of mobile phones and devices, it is almost impossible to completely protect your kids so it is crucial to communicate with them about the potential risks in age appropriate ways. Helping them to understand the dangers of sharing personal information through their online profiles, will keep their identity safe from predators. Even online games can be a source of risk so it is important that parents and family members are internet literate and have an awareness of their children’s activities online.

As a parent or grandparent, you have the privilege of shaping your child’s sexual knowledge, values and behaviours. Imagine if your children could avoid the messages of the traditional and individualistic narratives, and instead, learn the relational narrative of Scripture. This will not happen without your intentional effort to overcome your awkwardness and reluctance to talk about sex, because remember, whatever you choose not to teach, your children will learn elsewhere.

  1. David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church . . . And Rethinking Faith (Green Press, 2016).
  2. Mark Regnerus, Cheap Sex, The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (Oxford University Press, 2017).

You may be intersted in reading Pornography: before and after from our partners at ST Network.

Dr Edyta Jankiewicz works for the Adventist Church in the South Pacific and produced this article for Adventist Record.