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20 Feb

Yes, Your Teenager Wants to Talk to You About Porn

Kristine Seitz, M.Ed, MSW, LSW is a sexuality educator and Licensed Social Worker who specializes in providing therapy to adolescents, adults, and young adults experiencing anxiety, communication and intimacy issues, depression, grief and loss, infidelity, relationship issues, sexual abuse, sexuality concerns, and trauma. 

Photo illustration by Sara Cwynar, The New York Times Magazine

After reading New York Times Magazine’s article What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn earlier this month, parents may find themselves with a range of feelings and with a lot of questions.

Some parents might be feeling curious. ‘I wonder if my teenager has seen porn online.  What messages are they taking from it?’

Some might feel uncomfortable. ‘It is uncomfortable to think about my teenager watching online porn’.

Others might be feeling anger.  ‘How is my teenager accessing online porn? It goes against our family values.’

While other parents may be in denial. “That was an insightful and interesting article, but my teenager isn’t watching porn. I do not need to worry about that.”

Whatever the feeling, the article provided some insight into what some teenagers may be learning from watching online porn and, more importantly, bring awareness to why it is important to be having this conversation.

It might be difficult for parents to think that their teenagers are watching porn. However, even if teenagers have not watched porn, they are viewing sexualized images in the media every day. From memes and YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat to commercials and print ads, movies and television, messages about sex and sexuality are forming impressions on children, adolescents, young adults, and adults alike.  Without the proper skills and information to critically view these messages, we are left with conflicting and confusing messages and often unrealistic and incorrect information. As the article mentions, media literacy, or the ability to understand and analyze the images and video in the media, is a crucial skill to develop.

Another factor to consider when talking to teens about online porn is differences in brain functioning.  Developmentally, the teenage brain processes information differently than adults.  Teenagers usually process information in the amygdala, a part of the brain that responds to emotional messages, while adults use the reason and planning area of the brain known as the frontal cortex.  In fact, it isn’t until age 25 that teenagers’ brains are fully developed.  Therefore, it makes sense that teenagers have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality.

As uncomfortable as it may be to think about teenagers viewing porn, it may feel even more uncomfortable for some parents to talk to their teenagers about it. However, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that more than siblings, peers, or the media, teens state that parents are the most influential when it comes to making decisions about sex.  Further, teens note that they want to have open and honest conversations with their parents.  Some parents may think that talking openly about sex and specifically in this case porn, is a way to condone or even encourage behaviors, however research does not support that view.  Studies have shown that youth that report being able to talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay having sex and to use condoms when they do make that decision.

But how exactly do you talk to teens about porn?

The following  tips will help parents to have that conversation. Talking honestly and openly to teenagers about porn can seem challenging but I recommend the same advice when it comes to talking about sex.  Conversations will vary based on family values and dynamics but I offer the following guidelines.

Be Calm.

It is okay to feel awkward or uncomfortable and it is even okay to admit that.  Your teenager probably feels uncomfortable too.  The more you talk, the easier it becomes.

Avoid overreacting.

Teens may be reluctant to be honest in the future if they are afraid of your reaction.

Listen and ask questions.

Spend the time to really listen to what is being said and/or asked.  Although uncomfortable, they are talking!  Avoid assuming you know the meanings of terms or slang that your teen is using.  Language changes rapidly and your teen may also use words that they hear without knowing the meanings themselves.  This can also be a time to provide age-appropriate and honest information.

Be aware.

Where are teens getting their information? What is age appropriate information regarding sexuality?  This is also a time for you to educate yourself.  Seek research based information rather than anecdotal or contact a professional sex educator.

Remain open.

Talking about sex and porn is not a one-time discussion!  Ideally, it is best to start early and continue having conversations over time, but it is never too late to start.

Kristine practices at our Voorhees location. Request an appointment today.

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