Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in eighteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Episode 31

My Kid Looked at Porn. What Should I Do?

Talking to a child about pornography might not be a conversation most parents think of having. However, by the age of sixteen, 90% of kids have looked at porn. Dr. Lisa Damour explains that kids' interest in sex is normal and part of healthy development. But she also explains how porn can be traumatic and confusing to kids and teens who encounter it. How do you approach the conversation and at what age should you start discussing it? Reena asks for tips on how to make these talks less uncomfortable.

March 16, 2021 | 27 min

Transcript | My Kid Looked at Porn. What Should I Do?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 31: My Kid Looked at Porn. What Should I Do?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional. 

 

REENA: So, I got the question, where do babies come from? And I’m so grateful you always have great advice, and I asked my son where did this come from? How did you start thinking about this? And he said he saw a show and the actor in the show, the kid said if you want to see parents so confused and unable to answer you ask them, where do babies come from? It made me think, what is he consuming that I don’t know about? It was one of these teeny bop shows.

 

LISA: Yup.

 

REENA: Yeah, so in our inbox we got a letter, because you always told me what are the things that can really cause harm to a child, and one of them you’ve always said is porn.

 

LISA: Yup.

 

REENA: Right? Which is totally different from the conversation I was having with my son, and I know this is a different route, but I saw this letter inbox that caught my attention. It says: ‘Dear Dr. Lisa, our 10-year-old son has been remote learning on a computer given to him by the school. We have a rule that he’s not supposed to take the computer in his bedroom, but we figured out that he was sneaking it in there and closing the door. Something seemed fishy so I checked his cache and found that he had been visiting really raunchy porn sites. I’m floored, and don’t know what to do. What do I say to my son? Where do I even start? Thank you for your help.’ What do you say to a kid who has been looking at this, right?

 

LISA: This is like a horrible moment as a parent and I actually get this question so much more often, I think, than anyone would imagine. This is a very common occurrence, which is so disturbing and so alarming, and 10 is young but it’s actually not unusual for me to hear a question like this right around that age or quite a bit younger than that age, right? So, most parents in this moment are kind of freaking out and with good cause. Okay so what do you do? Well first thing I love is that this parent stopped and wrote to us, like didn’t just react in the moment.

 

REENA: Love it.

 

LISA: So, sort of just took a beat on that. I think the first thing we have to do as parents in this moment is to remember kids are curious about sex, right? They are just curious about sex, and I don’t know if you have memories like this but here’s one I have. I remember being in the fourth grade at my school and getting the dictionary and taking it behind a bookcase with my friends and we were looking up the word penis in the dictionary. Like I remember where I was, you know, like crouched behind this bookcase, and of course like the definition of penis in the dictionary is really pretty boring, but that was, you know fourth grade that’s 9 years old. Do you have memories of curiosity?

 

REENA: You know it’s so funny. I don’t remember having a moment like that, but I remember in the fifth grade having human growth and development classes that was explaining sex and I was so excited to go because it was like this big moment my mom said, I’ve never seen you more excited to go do school.

 

LISA: Right. So, we have to couch kids’ interest in sex as a normal and developmental thing, and the challenge of course now is, you know, you got your information from the health and development class, I got my information from the really boring dictionary. Kids today if they want to go looking for information they go online and what they get is so much more than they bargained for. It is so not what we want them to be getting. So, this is an understandable unfolding of events, right? That a kiddo would be curious and then they go online and then they stumble across porn. It does not mean this is a bad kid. It does not mean this is a naughty kid, but you do have to deal, then, with what he has seen. So, I think the first step a parent would take in this moment is to just say, look, kiddo. I get it that you’re curious about sex, but I have to let you know I saw the websites you’ve been going to, and we need to have a conversation.

 

REENA: So where do you take it from there when you have that conversation?

 

LISA: Well, the kid’s probably going to blanche. Totally mortified and I think you have to deal with that. I think you have to say, look I get it, you know, it’s you saw something you shouldn’t have seen, I want to talk about what you saw, and I think actually the first thing you should say is what was that like for you? Do you have questions for me? I want to answer your questions first and then I have a lot I want to say to you.

 

REENA: And if they freeze? If they freeze up, just don’t want to talk they’re so embarrassed?

 

LISA: Which is likely to happen, so I think you have to read that moment, but I think there are things that need to be said, and I will leave it to parents who find themselves in this spot to decide how much can be said at once. You know getting in a place where they can hear anything, but one way to make that happen is to say, look I get it you don’t want to talk about this. This is an open conversation. But then say, okay there are some things I want you to know about what you saw. And say to your kiddo, I promise I will talk for two minutes and then this will be over. Like that’s actually sometimes a nice way to actually have conversations like that is to be like, dude bear with me for two minutes and then I promise it’s over and you’re out. That can make it more bearable.

 

REENA: Oh my gosh, that’s great.

 

LISA: And then to say something like, look what you saw is pornography. That is not healthy loving sex. That is not what goes on in the context of meaningful intimate relationships. What you saw is entertainment, and it’s entertainment for adults, and my hunch is that what you saw was pretty upsetting or confusing to you. It may have struck you as violent, and, Reena, I have to say what is out there is pretty disturbing to look at, and to say to your kiddo, what you saw is sort of a dark and shadowy corner of what sex is all about. Sex can be wonderful, loving, mutual and tender, or it can be yucky, dark and violent, and a lot of what’s available on pornography is the second kind, and I want you to know that’s not what your love life should look like. That is not what people in healthy relationships have ove lives that look like, that you saw something pretty weird and disturbing. So, I think that’s a good place to start.

 

REENA: Is there a point, Lisa, when having a child see porn is really horrible developmentally, or do you think you can really walk them out of whatever it is they might have seen.

 

LISA: In my ideal dream world no kid would see porn. I hate being that kind of cut and dry about it but there’s no upside to kids seeing porn. I can tell you that.  But kids see porn. Lots of kids see porn. I was actually looking at some data recently. By age 16, 90 percent of teenagers have seen porn, and sometimes they go looking for it, sometimes they stumble upon it accidentally. I had this poor kiddo in my practice years ago who went looking for Dick’s Sporting Goods. Woah. Got a lot.

 

REENA: Oh boy.

 

LISA: And sometimes, and this is not unusual, they’re riding the school bus and some kid pulls up porn on their phones, sticks the phone in your kid’s face is like, hey look at this, right? So, in my dream fantasy world, kids don’t see porn. In my parenting for the world as it actually is, you’ve got to prepare for the fact that your kid is going to see porn. Either they’re going to find it or they’re going to be shown it or they’re going stumble on it, and so then the question is how do you mitigate the harms of that? So, one way to think about it is to try to get out in front of it. To try to get out in front of it, and my thinking on this is that there’s certain things we can do as a family to try to minimize the likelihood that a kid will stumble on it, and then we’ll come back to that, but the minute you hand your kid a phone you’re basically handing them a porn portal, and you need to be really honest with yourself about that.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: And so, I think you know in that moment when you’re handing a kid a phone like a lot can happen. One thing I would seriously consider doing as a parent in handing a kid a phone is to say something like, look. This thing has tremendous power. It’s an incredible tool. You can use it for all sorts of things. Here is a worry I have. Either through this or some other way you’re going to encounter pornography, and if you have or before you do there is some stuff I got to tell you about it, and so I think you can say the whole thing about it is dark, yucky, disturbing, and then I also think you can add, I am here to have that conversation with you when you see it, if you see it. I am here to answer your questions. I am here to be a reality check on it. I am here to help you make sense of why this exists in the world, but it’s going to freak you out and I think it’s really helpful to say that.

 

REENA: I love this. Like you know approaching it before it even happens. What age should you have that conversation?

 

LISA: Okay this is younger than I wish it were. I think part of it depends on how much control you have about your kid’s digital access. So, one way to think about it is do things at home. I recommend families do things at home to minimize the chance at your kid’s going to stumble on it at home. So, you can do things like work with your wireless provider to install filters on content. You can install filters at the computer level, you can install them at the router level. I mean you can do things that minimize the chances that your kid’s going to stumble upon it. So, then it raises questions about how much is your kid out and about using other people’s computers, right? Or have access to those. I think as soon as you feel like your kid has started to have access to computers that you don’t control, you know, and that happens at different ages but it could be, I hate to say it, 9, 10, 11.

 

REENA: Makes sense.

 

LISA: I think you need to say basically the spiel around handing your kid the phone, like you may come across pictures and videos of grownups having sex. It’s super weird. It’s going to freak you out. You’re not really supposed to see it. I can’t entirely prevent it, but I’m here to have a conversation because what you see, man, you’re going to have a lot of questions.

 

REENA: But doesn’t that just automatically get them starting to Google and think, what was mom talking about if it wasn’t on their radar?

 

LISA: Well, that’s a good point, right? If they’re already curious. I think this is a place where some rules are worth articulating even though you may not be able to enforce them perfectly. So, I think that it’s probably a great time to have a conversation to say, of course you’re going to be curious about sex. All kids are curious about sex. I am here to answer your questions. I can get you some great books that will answer all of your questions. I really don’t want you to go looking online for answers because what you find there is going to create a lot of upsetting feelings in you, and I don’t want to put you in that position.

 

REENA: I feel like most children will suddenly Google, like what are they talking about. And then how do you enforce those rules about this, right?

 

LISA: You know, you can’t perfectly, but I think you also have to be aware you can try to regulate it really well in your home. As soon as they’re going over to other kids’ houses, the cat’s out of the bag. I mean you really can’t control that. On this point I actually want to see something about very young kids, and this is one of the things I learned the hard way in the practice, it was so disturbing to me. I had it happen, I would say two or three times, when I got a phone call from a parent who said my six-year-old has been having trouble sleeping. Has been very anxious, very disturbed, something was wrong and finally blurted out that they had been on a playdate and some like13-year-old kid, a sibling had shown the little kids porn, and of I don’t use this word lightly, pretty much traumatizing for a younger kid, and porn is pretty traumatizing for kids to look at. It is very overwhelming, and I I think we can’t really underestimate that, and I think probably when I imagine what happened in that situation is that the 13-year-old in the family was pretty flipped out by what they’d seen, and in trying to come to terms with it was basically doing to little kids what had been done to them, which was shocking stuff online. So, when my girls were younger I actually made a rule without telling them what was behind it, I said you’re not to go on computers or phones that aren’t ours. So when you’re on playdates if that kiddo wants to go on a computer or phone you tell them that we say no.

 

REENA: Wow. Wow. That is a great rule to have. So, Lisa, I want to go back to this element of shocking. You used the word traumatizing. We’re at such a different level, we’re adults, take us into the eyes of a kid who’s in that sort of elementary age who sees porn. Why is it so traumatizing?

 

LISA: Well, I don’t know the last time you looked at porn, Reena.

 

REENA: I’ll admit it has been a while, even in this pandemic.

 

LISA: It’s not one of your central entertainments? Okay, so here’s the thing. So, when I was, it was actually when I was writing “Untangled”, a long time ago, this mom in my community knew I was writing about porn, talking about porn little bit, and she’s like, Lisa I think you should take a look at what the boys in my son’s ninth grade are looking at, and she sent me to pornhub(dot)(com), and I was like, you know what I if I’m going to write talk about porn I should probably have a sense of the landscape, right? So, I type in pornhub(dot)(com), and I’m like, surely, they will ask me for a credit card, you know, surely they will do something really tricky to confirm my age. Okay, none of that. Like basically boom, boom, boom you’re in. So here I am, Reena, in front of this giant computer use for writing, and what pops up are nine videos in, like a three-by-three square, of sex, and it is, first of all it all looks like rape. It is so aggressive. It is so intense. I am also looking at women’s bodies that are so unbelievably modified. Massive breasts, and I am also, if we’re going to be blunt, looking at mail equipment, the likes of which we have never seen in real life. I mean really overwhelming like anatomical outliers. And it’s so weird, Reena, because it looks really violent and aggressive, and yet the women, and it’s the women, are playacting this gleeful delight in it. So here I am sitting for this thing, and okay I’m no prude, I have not lived in this world, I have practiced as a condition for a long time, I thought I was going to throw up.

 

REENA: It was traumatizing for you, as an adult, to watch.

 

LISA: It was overwhelming for me, and so I’m like, okay here I am, I was probably 45 at the time, I can’t take 10 seconds of this. What would it be like to kiddo sitting in front of this, and so sometimes I’ve encountered people who were like, you know kids are curious, and I’m thinking, okay if you’re imagining some like erotica that may, or actually I don’t care what adults do, right? Like adults get to make their own choices, but for a kiddo to think that this is sex, and then the other problem, Reena, and this is really, you know, as you start to have conversations with kids as they age, about why you want them to steer clear of this, the other thing that happens is it’s still titillating, and so your kid is in the horrible position of looking at something that they know is wrong, they sense it’s wrong, and yet their body is reacting to it, and I think that is worth saying to kids, you’re going to see stuff that your mind is going to say is not okay, and you’re going to have the weird experience of your body kind of vibing to it, and I don’t want you in that spot.

 

REENA: So, my takeaway from what you’re saying is first, they’re curious so don’t make them embarrassed of the fact they’re curious, that’s natural development, and the second thing is you’ve got to open up the room to allow conversation. I’m going to talk to you for two minutes and lay down what’s important. Then I’m going to let you take your questions and talk to you. They might freeze up, but you need to at least have that space that you’re willing and ready to talk, and then there are different degrees of porn, too I mean erotica, you just don’t know what they might be consuming at this point, but how do you get them to sort of talk about this and start the conversation on whatever the age level is? Like what is important as you’re having that conversation to hit on.

LISA: Well, I think, in my ideal world we get out in front of it, though what happened in this letter happens all the time, and so parents just have to treat it as an opening, but in my ideal world you’re in the car because nobody has to look at each other, and you take your kiddo and you’re in the car and let’s say it’s you know age 9,10 or 11, I hate that we’re talking about this with kids that young but let’s be honest, and you are two and a half minutes from home, so your kid knows it cannot go on all that long, and then you say, look there’s something we’ve got to talk about. This is uncomfortable but it’s really important that we have this conversation. There are people who have sex on camera for money and there are adults who watch that for entertainment. So that is what it is, then say, as you are increasingly have access to digital media you may encounter this. I really hope you don’t. I don’t want you to, because what you see, like I said, is going to freak you out, but we are here to answer questions if you see it. I want to know that’s actually the kind of stuff you’re seeing, it’s violent, it’s yucky, that is not the love life your parents waiting I just want you to know that because of course could think like oh my gosh what is this what my parents are doing yeah and then say I’m here to answer your questions and I’m here to help you understand what relationships are about what romance is about, but I wish we were having this conversation but I want to be honest and I want to prepare you for something that you might stumble upon or that another kid might show you.

 

REENA: Yeah. I love this idea of the car. I’ve never thought of it because you can touch on the situation and not have to look each other. I love that. But we’re assuming that all parents aren’t doing this and whatever happens in your bedroom is okay, that’s between you and your partner, right?

 

LISA: Absolutely. Do your thing.

 

REENA: So, we’re saying no judgment. That’s wonderful. Happy people are having sex in this pandemic. What do you do with people who just write it off as kids being curious and who don’t think porn is really a big deal, especially when you get into your teenage years, and you might parent differently than somebody else?

 

LISA: Yeah. I think what I would say is first of all, you should probably go take a look at what’s out there now and imagine being a kiddo looking at all looking at it. I think I think a lot of the minimization of it is not really, is picturing something much tamer than is actually what’s available. I mean when you look at it, you’re like, oh my god like I want to go by Playboys for every 13-year-old boy in the world and be like, dude if you will just look at this and not at porn like that would be fantastic. It really, really is pretty rough stuff. The other thing is, and I use this term cautiously, there can be an addictive quality to it because it does turn people on there can be a quality where, you know adolescents, they’re super charged in their sexuality, like everything’s really intense, where a pairing can get laid down between what kids are seeing on porn and what they find erotically stimulating, and to the degree that it is violent and degrading and rough, you know, you don’t want your kid pairing those two things, and one of the people I think about in this, do you ever remember the work of Dan Savage, I mean I know he’s still active, he writes about sex, he’s unbelievably progressive, I mean he is really like as accepting and open and down for everything in terms of  what he talks about, writes about, as anyone and he says, he’s like look, porn hates women. Porn hates women, and so I think there’s that. And, Reena, have to tell you in terms of the addictive quality I knew about it, I was aware of it, and then I had this conversation that stayed with me and it’s so incredible. So, right around the time “Under Pressure” came out a local parish school, a Catholic parish school, asked me to come give a talk about “Under Pressure” and so I was happy to do it, and in “Under Pressure” I talk about sexual interactions, I lay out what I consider to be an expectable, but I think other people might consider to be, or some people might consider to be progressive view of how we have these conversations with kids, but I do talk about how we get into discussions with our children about their emerging love lives, and so I know the priest at the parish, and given that I was his guest I actually checked in with him before the talk. I was like, hey you know here’s how I talk about sex. Is this all, I guess kosher, for lack of a better word, you know I say this, this, this and this, and he’s like, oh yeah absolutely, and he’s like and you have to talk about porn, and I was like, woah, really?

 

REENA: The priest said this?

 

LISA: The priest said this. He’s like you’ve got to talk about porn, and I was like, okay. And he said because I take confession from a whole lot of teenage boys and a huge percentage of what they are confessing to me is they can’t stop looking at porn all night.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: And I was like, no way. He’s like absolutely. Absolutely, and they are tortured about it.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: And they can’t stop looking at, and I have to tell you I was like, okay this guy knows more about what teenage boys are doing with porn than anybody. You know bless his heart, and so I said, okay I’ll talk about it. Will you be at the talk, and he said, absolutely. I said, can I tell everybody that you were the one who suggested I talk about this. He’s like absolutely, right? So, I gave a talk, but then, I mean the other rule that is so obvious and important this is here’s another reason to not let kids have tech in their bedrooms overnight.

 

REENA: Right. Right.

 

LISA: If you needed a reason, and you know, there’s another one, and it’s a fantastic one.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: So, get it out of the rooms, put it whatever rules you can around it, and then talk about it. If it happens and if you can before it happens.

 

REENA: That’s great. You know what it is, Lisa? I think this is such a wide range when you talk about porn, from erotica, and then you’ve got the curiosity of children, who just want to know what it looks like you know? I’m talking about bodies. How do you not make them feel isolated and let them know this is normal?

 

LISA: I think you really have to initiate the conversation and just say, look you’re going to be curious about sex, of course you are, you’re going to be curious about your body and other people’s bodies. I want you to get good information. So, I am here to answer your questions. I think a really nice thing to say in these moments is if you ask me a question, I will answer only the question you ask and I promise to stop because sometimes parents take that opening, they’re like oh good, and they overwhelm the kid and the kid’s like it’s like, oh man I’m so sorry I asked. So, you can say, I will ask answer questions, and then, actually, Reena, let’s go to our book giveaway because it looks a really good way, because sometimes kids don’t want to have a conversation with you but they want answers and you want them getting good answers. So, there’s two books, I think are really excellent, and they’re different developmental levels. So, let’s give away one of each.

 

REENA: Great.

 

LISA: So, there’s one called “It’s Perfectly Normal” and it’s just about, for lack of a better word, like the birds and the birds and the bees, starting at younger ages, and then for parents of older kids there’s this great book called “Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between” by Savia Zalum, who is an excellent sex educator and it’s a really great book for parents about how to approach these conversations with adolescents, and so you know there are books that are useful and I would say you could actually get and give either one of these to a kid, probably give you know the “It’s Perfectly Normal” to a younger kid. You can read “Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between” for yourself, as a parent, and/or share it with your teenager, but there are great, clear, honest and direct resources that have good information that you’re going to want your kid to have.

 

REENA: I love it and I need them and I’m so grateful that you’ve flagged these books that can be so useful to so many people. These are hard conversations to have.

 

LISA: Yeah.

 

REENA: They really are. So, speaking of great advice, I want to flag for everyone our parenting to go segments are now available on our LinkedIn and Instagram handles for the month of March. Every day you’re putting up a parenting to go people to see.

 

LISA: Absolutely. We’re just going through them one by one from all of our past episodes.

 

REENA: I love that, and speaking of parenting to go, what do you have for us this week?

 

LISA: One thing I’ve been thinking about, especially with regard to this topic, is that kids always make sense, even when they do things that we are upset by or shocked by or don’t understand. So, in this case kids look at pornography often because they’re curious about sex, but we can take that lesson and apply it to lots of things. Any time kids do things that we really don’t like or don’t understand we should stop and step back and try to think, why did my kid do this, and try to see it from their perspective before we go about the work of addressing what it is they did.

 

REENA: It’s not often that we try to see things through their eyes as adults.

 

LISA: Nope, especially when we’re really upset.

 

REENA: So true. I’ll see you next week, Lisa?

 

LISA: I’ll see you next week.