Parents’ Guide to Internet Pornography

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If you’d like a quick overview of the impact of pornography on the adolescent brain, our parents’ guide to internet pornography recommends you watch these 2 videos. The first is a 4-minute TED talk by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo called  “The Demise of Guys”, and the second is Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk “The Great Porn Experiment” that answers Zimbardo’s challenge, (16 mins).

This third TED video (14 mins) by Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore called the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain explains the healthy adolescent brain. She does not mention pornography and its effects however, but it is a good overview. This latest talk with slides by Dr Baler (50 mins) of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US is a terrific presentation that does refer to pornography, gaming, drugs, alcohol etc. It explains how the adolescent brain can go awry as a result of toxic stimuli and what we can do to help them build resilience. It explains that adolescents’ brains are particularly plastic and a double edge sword that can be shaped for good or ill.

Whatever you do, don’t blame and shame a child for watching pornography. It is everywhere. Children are naturally curious about sex especially from puberty onwards and online porn seems like the real deal. Just forbidding your child to watch it only makes it more tempting, for as the old saying goes, ‘forbidden fruit tastes sweetest’. Helping your child to understand how it is affecting their developing brain and how it is designed to be addictive like online gaming and gambling, can help them become aware of their own use.

Recent research suggests that filters alone will not protect your children from accessing online pornography. Making it harder to access it is always a good start especially with young children. It is worth putting filters on all internet devices and making sure on a regular basis that they are working. Here are some we have heard about. Please check with NSPCC or Childline or CEOP for the latest recommendations. Listing them here does not constitute an endorsement by The Reward Foundation:

Covenant Eyes provides options of both control and remote monitoring;  Ikydz is an app to allow parents to monitor their kids’ use; Bark;  Net Nanny;  Mobicip;  Qustodio Parental Control;   WebWatcher;   Norton Family Premiere;  OpenDNS Home VIP;  PureSight Multi.

Moment is a free app that allows a person to monitor their use online, set limit and receive nudges when reaching those limits. Users have a tendency to underestimate their usage by a significant margin.

Delay giving your child a smartphone or tablet for as along as possible. Mobile phones mean you can stay in contact. Do they really need 24 hour-a-day access to the internet?

Turn off the internet at night or at the very least,  remove all internet devices especially phones from your child’s bedroom. Lack of restorative sleep is increasing stress, depression and anxiety in many children today. They may protest at first, but many children have told us they would like their parents to impose curfews on them and give them clear boundaries. You are not doing your child any favours leaving them literally to their own devices.


There are a variety of resources available to help parents deal with this tricky subject. The best book on the market, if you like reading, is by our honorary research officer Gary Wilson (we would say that but it happens to be true) and is called “Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction”. He is an excellent science teacher who explains the brain’s reward/motivation system in a very accessible way for non-scientists. The impact of porn is made more real through the hundreds of heartening recovery stories by younger and older guys, and some women too. Many started watching internet porn at a young age. It has excellent tips about recovery set out by those who know best.

The book is available in paperback, on Kindle or as an audiobook. It is in its second edition updated in October 2018 to take account of the World Health Organisation’s recognition of a new diagnostic category of “Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder”. It has been translated into Dutch, Arabic and Hungarian so far with others in the pipeline. The book is an expansion of Gary’s TEDx Glasgow talk from 2012. (See above).

We recommend these resources for parents too

First is from child psychiatrist Dr Victoria Dunckley (drdunckley.com). Her book “Reset your Child’s Brain” and her free blog explain the effects of too much screen time on the child’s brain and what parents can do to help their child get on track again. She says that about 80% of the children she sees do not have the mental health disorders they have been diagnosed with and medicated for, such as ADHD,  bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety etc. but rather have what she calls ‘electronic screen syndrome.’ This syndrome mimics the symptoms of many of these common mental health disorders. The mental health issues can often be cured/reduced by removing the electronic gadgets for a period of around 3 weeks in most cases. Sometimes a longer period is required. Her book explains how parents can do this in a step-by-step guide in collaboration with the child’s school.

Second is a free resource for parents by retired sociology professor and author, Dr Gail Dines, founder of Culture Reframed. Her focus as a feminist is more on how our pornified culture is grooming our children for sexual exploitation and robbing them of their chance of healthy and happy sexual development.

Third, here is more free advice from anti-child abuse charity StopIt Now! Parents Protect.

For Younger Children

Other books for parents who may want to teach younger children include:

Good Pictures, Bad Pictures” by Kristen Jensen and Gail Poyner. Gail Poyner is a psychologist has also written a useful book called “Pandora’s box is open. Now what do I do?”

Liz Walker has written a simple book for very young children with colourful graphics called  “Not for Kids. Protecting Kids online.

There are good resources available too for faith- based communities such as Fight the New Drug and Integrity Restored.

Here is an important new report from Internet Matters on internet safety and digital piracy with tips on how to keep your child safe while surfing the net.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition present from birth. It is not a mental disease. It affects about 1:100 people. Parents with children who may be suspected of being on the autism spectrum, including those with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, need to be aware that their child may be at higher risk of becoming hooked on pornography than neurotypical children due to a range of factors related to their condition. If you suspect that your child may be on the autistic spectrum, consider having him or her assessed formally. While it is a much more common condition among males, females can have it too. For more information read these blogs on porn and autism; a mother’s story; and autism: real or fake?

Government Intervention

The UK Government has introduced legislation to restrict access by under 18 year olds to internet pornography. See this blog about it for more details.

Advice from the NSPCC

NSPCC guide online porn

More support from The Reward Foundation

Please contact us if there is any area you’d like us to cover on this subject. We will be developing more material on our website over the coming months. Sign up to our e-newsletter Rewarding News and follow us on Twitter (@brain_love_sex) for the latest developments.

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