A scared parent's guide to those awkward (but necessary) conversations about internet porn.

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Author: Kate Rope
Date: Sept. 24, 2019
Publisher: The Washington Post
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,450 words
Lexile Measure: 1050L

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Byline: Kate Rope

"We have to talk to her about internet porn." That was how my husband began our post-bedtime, wind-down time on the couch the other night. I was still recovering from my seventh-grader announcing she had been invited to the mall for the first time. And now he wanted my exhausted brain to contemplate the vault of online sex my 11-year-old - who still plays with Calico Critters, mind you - will one day be exposed to? Hard pass.

I started thinking about whether I could invent a time machine and go back to parenting a toddler or, heck, a tween in the 1980s. It's hard enough to talk to your kids about plain old sex, let alone the panoply of pornography available to them through any electronic device.

But my husband interrupted my time travel reverie to make a point that applies to so much of parenting: "Just because you're scared of it, doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it." He was right, of course, so I dove in and ran with it.

I called some of the top experts on kids, sex and the digital age. What I learned helped me have a conversation that was way less scary than I imagined, so I put together this hand-holding guide for any parents who, like me, are filled with equal measures of good intentions and fear.

Stick with me. I'm going to front-load the scary stuff to end on a more reassuring note. And know that your tween or teen is going to give you 10 minutes, tops. That takes a little pressure off and means there's no way you will hit all these points. Pick a few that resonate with your values. Experts emphasized that this shouldn't be a one-off chat anyway, but part of an ongoing conversation about healthy sexuality. You can do it. Here's how.

- Accept that your child is likely to see sex on the internet. There are many routes that exposure can take, from an innocent Google search to a kid on the bus who thinks it's hilarious to show your child a clip on a phone. "It used to be that you had to borrow your brother's Playboy, and now all you have to do is Google 'boobs,'" says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of "Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls." Several years ago, she talked with the family of a 9-year-old boy who went looking for "Dick's Sporting Goods" online and, well, you can imagine the rest.

"We don't have the luxury to be awkward," says Peggy Orenstein, author of "Girls and Sex" and the forthcoming "Boys and Sex." "If we don't get in there, we are letting the media and porn educate our kids."

- Know that this is not your brother's Playboy. The content available is much more hardcore than it was when we were growing up. "There are videos of people engaged in what may or may not be consensual acts that most people don't prefer - or would require heavy negotiation between partners - and look very violent," says Devorah Heitner, author of "Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World." "You don't want your 10-year-old son or 5-year-old daughter to assume they are everyday acts." But they might if you don't tell them otherwise.

- Explain that porn and sex are not the same. Kids don't have years of mature sexual experience to put porn into perspective, which means they may equate what they see with this "sex" thing they've heard about. Let your child know that online porn may be scary and could freak them out. That "it depicts people who are paid to have sex on camera and may not represent a tender, romantic sex life that is healthy and happy and mutual," says Damour. That alone can bring them tremendous relief if (or when) they come across it.

- Position yourself as an ally. With any potential pitfall of adolescence - vaping, drinking, drugs or porn - you can't help your kids safely over it if you don't know they are facing it. So the No. 1 goal in any conversation about tough subjects is to get across that you are the person to talk to.

Let your child know that if they see something upsetting, you want to know. "The rule is: If you see something like that, turn off the device and let me know," says Amy Lang, a sex educator in Seattle. "You won't be in trouble."

Positioning yourself less as an arbiter of rules and more as an ally to help your child understand and navigate these tricky topics will increase the likelihood that they will talk to you. Damour suggests saying, "I want you to know that we can talk about anything you see however it is you come across it."

- Talk about gender dynamics. Orenstein has interviewed hundreds of tweens and teens, and what concerns her most about their exposure to pornography is "not the explicitness, but the message, which shows female pleasure in service to men and eroticizes male aggression and female submission."

Damour agrees. "Pornography coalesces around themes of violence against women," she says. Explaining this dynamic can help reinforce the values you do want them to learn about treating people (in intimacy or otherwise) with respect, seeking enthusiastic consent and working toward a healthy sex life (someday).

- Protect your kids at home. "There's a lot to be said for putting in as many speed bumps as possible," says Damour. Make use of the parental controls and filtering options offered by your internet service provider, devices and browser.

Some parents enforce a "no device in the bedroom or on the second-floor" rule. Another option is monitoring your kids' online behavior. Monitoring software enables you to block specific sites and search results (by choosing key words), and keeps a record of what your child is doing.

If you choose monitoring software, Lang and Damour recommend that you let your child know. "Tell them, 'There's yucky stuff on the internet, so we will be getting an email letting us know where you've been, so we know you're safe,'" Lang says.

"If you find out they've done something they weren't supposed to, you can talk to them about it," Damour adds. That conversation will be much more awkward - and potentially harmful to your relationship - if your kid discovers you've been tracking their activity in secret. Plus, you miss out on one of the benefits of monitoring, says Damour: "Knowing that you are watching is its own speed bump."

- Protect your kids outside your home. Of course, those safeguards won't stop another child from sharing inappropriate content with yours. Help your child prepare responses in case it happens, including letting them know they can throw you under the bus with a comeback like, "My mom will kill me if she knows I've looked at that." Or "Parents are sneaky. Yours could have monitoring software." Or the more straightforward, "I don't want to see that." Brainstorming some options with your kid will give them a chance to practice saying "no." It also makes you two a team (rather than adversaries) focused on the shared goal of staying safe.

- Share your values about sex. "The easiest way to help your kids survive their porn exposure is by making sure that they already know what sex is and your values about sexuality," Lang says. This accomplishes two things. It makes it less likely that your child will head to the internet to learn about sex. And you will be helping your child think through what they do want from an intimate relationship. There are great resources to help you, including online lists from Orenstein and Lang. But only you (or your co-parent) can offer personalized support to your child and share your family's values.

- Choose your moment. Take a deep breath, pick a low-key, calm moment when you are not face-to-face - when you are doing dishes, folding laundry, or on a walk, say - and go for it.

I'll confess that I had my conversation face-to-face, and it was fine. We're not going for perfect. We're going for doing it. I got 80% of my points across. It was way less uncomfortable and scary than I expected. And it was a short conversation. There will be more to come, I know. But with one under my belt, I am way less worried about future chats.

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Rope is a mother and the author of " Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Happy, Healthy and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood."

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