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Should I be worried if I find out my teenage son or daughter watches porn?

Porn is more widely available than ever before - so what should parents and carers do if they realise their child is using it?

Ammanda Major
Friday 27 November 2015 17:47 GMT
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Does watching porn damage teenagers?
Does watching porn damage teenagers? (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

People have wildly different responses to porn. It’s one of those topics that whether you think about it from a moral, ethical or even legal point of view, it’s likely that no two people will have exactly the same opinion.

As a therapist, often the sexual issues my clients have wanted to work on have to greater or lesser degrees involved problems with different attitudes towards using porn. Some see it as a harmless pastime while others feel degraded by the mere thought of it. For some too, using porn gets out of control and has detrimental effects on them and those around them.

1 in 5

The number of children aged between 12 and 13 who think watching porn is normal 

I’m talking here about adults of course, but many of the same things still apply to teenagers. I think we’d probably all have to concede that kids are curious about sex. In times gone by, catching a glimpse of top shelf magazines was probably a mark of triumph for lots of teenage boys. Nowadays things are very different and the ease with which sites hosting shocking images and videos can be accessed is really worrying for some people.

Several pieces of research show how teenagers’ attitudes towards sex with a partner are being influenced by the porn they’re looking at. The particularly concerning aspect is the frequent violent degradation of male and female characters, and the way this may be shaping teenagers’ approach to sex and relationships in real life. For example, the 2015 Girlguiding Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that seven in ten girls and young women aged 11 to 21 think that pornography gives out confusing messages about sexual consent, or that it makes aggressive or violent behaviour towards women seem normal (both at 71 per cent).

Not all porn is violent, but some would argue that even in the "milder" genres someone has been degraded merely by taking part, or even by watching it. Although pretty much every taste is catered for, including a preference for "ordinary bodies", porn can depict unrealistic sex that lasts for an extremely long time and involves "enhanced", hairless bodies that never seem to tire or succumb to age. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the Girlguiding Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that nearly nine in ten young women aged 17 to 21 agree that pornography creates unrealistic expectations of what women’s bodies are like (87 per cent), while three in four (73 per cent) think it creates unrealistic expectations about men’s bodies.

While porn can cause issues for adults, we also know that teenage brains are not as formed as may have been previously understood and there has been much research done into how watching violent, degrading and highly sexual imagery can affect people who are still developing physically, emotionally and mentally.

In the NSPCC 2015 survey about young people and porn, a teenage boy is quoted saying "I'm always watching porn and some of it is quite aggressive. I didn't think it was affecting me at first but I've started to view girls a bit differently recently and it's making me worried. I would like to get married in the future but I'm scared it might never happen if I carry on thinking about girls the way I do."

He’s not alone with his worries because ChildLine have seen a 6 per cent rise in the number of young callers expressing similar concerns. In the same survey it was reported that "1 in 5 children aged 12-13 thought that watching porn is normal behavior, nearly 1 in 10 children aged 12 to 13 were worried they might be addicted to porn" and "around 1 in 5 of those surveyed said they'd seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them."

Helping kids to understand why viewing porn can become a real problem has to start early and needs to be part of a bigger conversation about respect in relationships. Part of this responsibility should fall to schools, as is recommended in Relate’s 2014 report with IPPR, Young People, Sex and Relationships, the New Norms.

But whilst SRE may form a large part of the solution, there is also plenty that parents can do to help educate their children. Navigating the embarrassment factor is something you may both have to do but it will be worth it if you end up creating a conversation that doesn’t feel like a ton of bricks.

It needs to be open ended too – so your teen knows they can talk about anything that bothers them at any time. Being interested in why they’ve been looking at porn is helpful because you may get a sense of whether curiosity has got the better of them or if there’s a more worrying reason. Young people are often under pressure from peers to look at porn so helping them understand that they’re entitled to say no is a good starting point. Try and get across that what the porn they are watching is most likely being carried out by actors and not people in real, loving relationships.

I've started to view girls a bit differently recently and it's making me worried

&#13; <p>A teenager boy worried about the affect the porn he watched had on his attitude </p>&#13;

Of course there are measures you can take to restrict teenager’s access to porn and the Government has said it intends to enforcer age limits on online porn. Still, the reality is that the vast majority of teens will watch porn at some point, whether they stumble across it accidently, are shown it by a friend or look out of curiosity. So of course as parent you may be worried if your teen is watching porn, but what is more worrying perhaps is if your child is poorly informed and actually believes that the sex they see in porn movies is what all sex should look like. That’s why talking to your teen openly about porn, sex, consent and relationships is so important.

If you really find discussing these things too difficult, then just letting them know where they can get information to help them make sensible choices would be helpful. The Childline FAPZ– Fight Against Porn Zombies campaign has useful, teen-friendly information about what to watch out for, so why not send them a link? If your teen is armed with relevant and accessible information then they’re more inclined to be in charge of porn rather than the other way round.

Ammanda Major is a trained Relate Counsellor and senior consultant on Sex Therapy. If you have concerns about your teenager and porn, you can speak to a trained counsellor for advice on how to talk about it using Relate’s Live Chat service.

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