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There's Pornography on the Internet? Really? How to Talk to Your Kids

02/04/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

When I was medical school, there was this show called Beavis and Butthead.

Beavis and Butthead (as their names suggest) were two exaggerated versions of typical early adolescent boys who snickered at words with even a hint of sexual connotation. It was fashionable when the show was on to imitate their raspy laughter. I'll admit that many of my friend (men and women alike) thought that the show was pretty funny. It's creator, Mike Judge, has gone on to do some great comedy on the big screen.

So, what do Beavis and Butthead have to do with Internet pornography?

Not much, and that's a good place to start this discussion.

Many of the more memorable episodes of Beavis and Butthead would not have been possible in the age of X-rated cyberspace. In one episode, the boys are "forced" to sneak into a coveted nudist colony because they lack the $4,000 entrance fee. They just want to watch. They're curious.

But this episode was written at a time when there was no Internet to speak of. The access to pornographic images for Beavis and Butthead was relegated to magazines with the front covers shielded and kept safely behind the counter at 7-11's and gas stations. (Or, more exotically, at nudist colonies.)

Today, the nudist colony episode would last about four minutes. Open the laptop and there's no need to sneak into a nudist colony. You just have to search your computer.

The relationship of sexually provocative images and movies that are readily available on the internet is, to say the least, a difficult topic. Nevertheless, I'd estimate that not a week goes by when I don't hear about someone who is understandably worried about their child's interest in or apparent exploration of internet pornography. This has become a central issue in child development.

This post will not attempt to define pornography. Indeed, the famous U.S. Supreme Court default of "I know it when I see it" shows how hard it is to put these issues into words. Nor will this post shower you with statistics. Estimates of the amount of pornography online are almost certainly overblown, but this isn't the place to quibble about numbers. What we know, from studies as well as clinical expereince, is this:

A huge percentage of both boys and girls are very interested in this particular Internet content. A smaller percentage of these boys and girls become increasingly unable to think of much else as a result of this content. And, finally, an unknown percentage of these boys and girls start to believe that what they see online is representative of normative sexual behavior.

It is this last conclusion -- that Internet pornography might be driving expectations around sexual experience -- that is most worrisome. Remember that humans are sexual creatures. We are programmed to think and behave sexually. It is also the case that sexual experimentation and sexual activity are healthy and normal parts of human development. Kids at all ages have a sexual drive and curiosity -- from "playing doctor" to wanting to come into the bathroom with mommy or daddy. Teenagers, with stronger sexual urges, will of course want to explore sexuality in far more advanced ways. It is simply part of being human.

So, how do we reconcile our normal and healthy drives with the massive amount of sexually provocative material that is amply available online? More importantly, how do we discuss these issues with our kids?

Here are some tips to follow. But first, as you read these bits of advice, remember, that each child is different. You'll need to adjust your tone and your attitude based on your child's developmental stage and on your own personal belief system.

Here's what we can offer:

1. Regardless of your approach, leave shame out of the discussion. Mixing shame with sexual curiosity is almost always a ticket to unwanted results. If your child feels ashamed of his or her own curiosity and drives, then you are very unlikely to hear from your child when there's real trouble.

2. If you are comfortable with the discussion, approach the issue before it's an issue. Keep the computer in a public area when your children are younger and let them know that there is content online that you'd rather they not see. There are Internet blocking programs (so-called parental controls), and many of these work moderately well at keeping the Internet kid friendly, but no system is full-proof. That means that in very concrete terms, you should tell your child something like this:

"If you come upon a site that feels inappropriate, please tell me."

For most kids, that's enough. They know what inappropriate means and they'll still want access to their online games. There's certainly a lot of worthwhile stuff on the computer, so telling your kids to let you know if they stumble into something that doesn't feel right usually does this trick.

3. If your child does find his or her way into some tawdry material, talk about it. Say something like this:

"That material is designed for adults and not for children. I'm sorry that it showed up on the computer and we'll work to block that and other sites like it. Do you have any questions?"

You can take it from there. Remember that it is always OK with younger kids to say that this is something you'll discuss more with them when they're older.

4. For older kids who might have computers, smart phones, or tablets in their rooms, you can only do so much. If you notice the cardinal signs of unhealthy internet use -- skipping meals, staying up late, locked doors and obfuscated explanations for online behavior -- you ought to talk. You especially ought to talk if you find evidence such as a search history that your child has visited pornographic sites. Again, this discussion should happen without shame. Say something like:

"I've noticed that you've been spending a lot of private time on the Internet, and it looks like from the history that you've visited some adult sites. I want to make sure you understand some important aspects of these sites and the risks associated with this material."

You should then go on to stress that the computer itself becomes tagged in the cyber world once pornographic sites have been visited. Servers become "aware" of where a computer has been. That can lead to unwanted, even dangerous attention to those who use that computer.

Most importantly, let your children know that what they see online is NOT REAL. That's the most important advice. Sexual activity is normal, but what they're seeing is staged. It's like reality TV, and you can use that analogy. No one really believes that reality TV isn't to some extent scripted. Similarly, even the adult Internet sites that are meant to be "regular people" are, by definition, not engaging in regular sexual activity. That's because they're on camera, or worse, because they're being unknowingly filmed. This is potentially and in many cases without question exploitative, and you can stress to your teen that sexual activity never goes well when one person exploits another.

You can then decide with them then how much you want to limit access to the computer. You should also discuss the strong feelings that are generated with any sexual activity. One of the reasons we ask adolescents to think so carefully about sexual conduct is that the conduct itself often stirs up unexpected and sometimes overwhelming emotional reactions. To that end, we'd like our children to have realistic views of what constitutes healthy sexual behavior.

5. This brings up the issue of prohibition. In general, outright prohibition doesn't work. It didn't work with alcohol for the general public in the 1930s and it didn't work with the efforts to curb music purchases in the 1980s. With adolescents, prohibition tends to promote greater temptation. This is not to say that we as parents don't have rules. We just need to elaborate on why we don't want pornography to be viewed by our teens and have an open discussion.

6. It is very likely your adolescent will not want to have an in depth discussion with you. That's fine. They'll still mull over what you say. If you feel your teen needs to have a more in depth conversation and won't have this conversation with you, turn to other professionals, older siblings, trusted relatives or advisors. School guidance counselors, pediatricians, religious leaders, and even boys and girls club leaders can be very helpful in these circumstances. If there is concern about addictive behavior, be wary of "Internet Addiction Experts." Without doubt there are experts in this burgeoning field, but there are no standards by which someone might claim expertise. Make sure that you vet anyone whom you trust to have such sensitive discussions with your children.

Sex is of course normal and a big part of being human. If we keep this in mind, then we can think about what see on the Internet with a grain of salt. What we call pornographic images stretches back to antiquity. The difference today is largely one of scope. The vastness of what is available to view, the ease of accessibility with which it can be viewed, and the unknown effects of such far-reaching access are largely unknown. We'll have better guidelines in a few years, but for now, as we always stress, talk to your child. They'll welcome the discussion, even if takes them a few years to realize that they do.

And be prepared to blush during the discussion. That's also part of being human.

A version of this piece appeared at the Clay Center For Healthy Young Minds web site. Steve Schlozman is a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and a published novelist and essayist.