Providing our children with any sort of sex education — whether it’s through a class at school, or sitting down together for the dreaded “talk” — has long been one of the most personally difficult, politically contentious issues of parenting.
The dawn of the Internet, and the subsequent rise of laptop, tablet, and smartphone technology have only made this issue more challenging. The Pew Research Center estimates that fully 95% of teens ages 12 – 17 are online, and nearly 40% of teens have their own smartphones.
That is to say, as our kids grow and develop, as they learn to navigate love, sexuality and relationships, they have — quite literally at their fingertips — unlimited, easy access to online pornography.
This matters for several reasons.
- Nearly 40% of teenagers have posted or sent sexually suggestive messages.
- At least 20% of teenagers have sent nude or semi-nude photos.
- Teenagers have anxiety driven by the need to constantly “look hot” online
- Studies suggest that teenagers who have casual sex are more likely to experience depression.
- Sexting can have legal consequences.
- The earlier a child is exposed to sexual content and starts having sex, the riskier types of sex he/she will engage in.
- Early exposure to pornography has been linked to higher incidence of sex addiction.
Online pornography is, in many ways, the new sex education. But the lessons taught are not scientific, tending instead to, “normalize early sexual experimentation and portray sex as casual, unprotected and consequence-free, encouraging sexual activity long before children are emotionally, socially or intellectually ready.” (Psychology Today)
Particularly in the absence of comprehensive and factual sexual education, the normalization of pornography can be emotionally and physically harmful.
In her recent New York Times essay journalist and author Peggy Ornstein, explained some of the dangers — particularly for girls — of too few facts and too much porn. Among them, is the pressure to engage in sexual acts that are painful.
A 2014 study of 16- to 18-year-old heterosexuals…published in a British medical journal found that it was mainly boys who pushed for “fifth base,” approaching it less as a form of intimacy with a partner (who they assumed would both need to be and could be coerced into it) than a competition with other boys. They expected girls to endure the act, which young women in the study consistently reported as painful. Both sexes blamed the girls themselves for the discomfort, calling them “naïve or flawed,” unable to “relax.”
For boys, who are more likely to watch online porn, addiction is a concern,
...boys who are vulnerable to addiction and other emotional and psychological challenges (thanks to genetics and/or troubling family histories) are absolutely at risk for porn addiction, just as they are at risk for alcoholism and drug addiction if they experiment with those potentially addictive substances. (Huffington Post)
All of this begs the question: how do we protect and educate our kids about sex as they transition from childhood to adulthood?
The burden falls squarely on the shoulders of parents. Sex ed in schools is inconsistent both in frequency and in content, and restricting access to the internet is a complex problem with elusive solutions, particularly as kids get older and become more independent.
So then, what’s left to do?
Well. Good old-fashioned talking. Talking to your kids — frequently, and factually — about their developing bodies is the best defense against inaccurate and potentially harmful ideas about sex and relationships.
Wondering where to begin? Try this American Academy of Pediatrics guide.
If you have something to add to this conversation — experiences, resources, anecdotes — please let us know, we love to hear from you!
Source: Time, New York Times, Psychology Today, Pew Research Center,