This is one of the toughest conversations to start having with your kids, for all sorts of reasons. Let this parents’ guide hold your hand through the issues. The more basic knowledge you have of what kids are facing today, the more confident you’ll feel about engaging with them and not being put off by smart remarks that you are “out of touch”. Parents are the most important source of guidance for kids. Many teens we speak to say they wish their parents would be more proactive in discussing these challenging matters.
“The Tech Industry’s War on Kids”
To better understand the change in culture resulting from technological changes in the past 10 years, this longish essay is well worth the time. It explains how psychologists at Stanford University have used their in depth knowledge of the brain and human desires to design technology that deliberately changes our thoughts and behaviour ‘without’ our awareness to maximise the tech companies’ profits. This is how people become hooked on gaming, gambling and porn.
To start developing your own education about how porn (and gaming) affect kids’ brains and behaviour today, we recommend you start by watching these two videos. It will only take 20 minutes of your time.
The first is a 4-minute TED talk by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo called “The Demise of Guys”. The second is Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk “The Great Porn Experiment” that answers Zimbardo’s challenge, (16 mins). Both focus on use by boys, but today girls are increasingly being targeted by the porn industry to build a bigger market.
Here’s a funny Tedx talk (16 mins) called “How Porn Skews Sexual Expectations” by an American mother and sex educator Cindy Pierce about why ongoing chats with your kids about porn are so necessary and what gets their interest. See below for more resources about how to have those conversations.
Our parents’ guide includes talks by leading neuroscientists on the adolescent brain.
Here is an excellent 3 minute talk for parents about the adolescent brain and its vulnerability to addiction. It is by Professor Nora Volkow the Director of the US National Institute for Drugs. When you have more time, this TED video (14 mins) by Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore called the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain explains the healthy adolescent brain. It is a good overview, but she does not mention pornography and its effects.
This longer talk with slides by Dr Baler (50 mins) of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse is very helpful. It looks at how the adolescent brain can go awry as a result of toxic stimuli like pornography, gaming, drugs, alcohol etc. Dr Baler explains that adolescents’ brains are particularly plastic and a double-edged sword that can be shaped for good or ill. Bingeing on gaming, gambling and pornography over time are now recognised by experts as being able to change the brain in the same way as drugs and other substances of abuse. It sets out how we can help young people build resilience to addiction.
Your child’s brain on porn
- Teaching your child how porn use can affect their developing brain over time is key. See videos above and elsewhere on this website. This can help them become aware of their own use of sexy content and take steps to find healthier ways to learn about sex or divert themselves from constantly thinking about it. Younger children need more boundaries, older children need to be encouraged to take care of their own health and wellbeing. Porn use increases sexual frustration.
- Internet porn shapes the way an adolescent brain’s responds to sexual arousal. Psychologists call it the “sexual arousal template“. It normally becomes active at puberty but early exposure to porn can influence sexualised behaviour in younger children.
- Bingeing on porn on a regular basis over months and years will increase how much sexual stimulation a user needs to become excited. Heavy porn consumption can mean that when they get with a real person they may feel little or no excitement. Hear this young man’s story. Find out how porn can affect young women too.
Tips for talking to kids
- Don’t blame and shame a child for watching pornography. It is everywhere on social media and in music videos. It can be hard to avoid. Other kids pass it on for a laugh or bravado, or your child may stumble across it. They may of course be actively seeking it out too. Just forbidding your child from watching it only makes it more tempting, for as the old saying goes, ‘forbidden fruit tastes sweetest’.
- Keep the lines of communication open so that you are their first port of call to discuss issues around porn. Children are naturally curious about sex from a young age. Online porn seems like a cool way to learn how to be good at sex. Be open and honest about your own feelings about pornography. Consider talking about your own exposure to porn as a young person, even if it feels uncomfortable.
- Kids don’t need one big talk about sex. They need many conversations as they grow. Each must be age appropriate. Fathers and mothers both need to play a role.
- Let your children know that porn is designed by multi-billion dollar tech companies to “hook” users without their awareness to form habits that keep them coming back for more. It’s all about keeping their attention. Companies sell and share intimate information about a user’s desires and habits to third parties and advertisers. It is addictive like online gaming, gambling and social media to keep users coming back for more as soon as they are bored or anxious.
- Dealing with protests: Kids 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 by leaving them ‘literally’ to their own devices.
- Don’t feel guilty for taking assertive action with your children. Their mental health and wellbeing are very much in your hands. Arm yourself with knowledge and an open heart to help your child navigate this challenging period of development. Here is advice from a child psychiatrist.
- Delay giving your child a smartphone or tablet for as long as possible. Mobile phones mean you can stay in contact. Do children really need 24 hour-a-day access to the internet? While children receive a lot of online homework assignments, can entertainment use be restricted to 60 minutes a day, even as an experiment? There are lots of apps to monitor internet usage especially for entertainment purposes. Children 2 years and under should not use screens at all.
- Turn off the internet at night. Or, at the very least, remove all phones and tablets from your child’s bedroom. Lack of restorative sleep is increasing stress, depression and anxiety in many children today. They need restorative sleep to help them integrate the day’s learning, help them grow, make sense of their emotions and feel well.
- Recent research suggests that filters alone will not protect your children from accessing online pornography. Keeping the lines of communication open is more important. Making porn harder to access however 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.
- Apps. There are many other software and support options. Ikydz is an app to allow parents to monitor their kids’ use. Gallery Guardian notifies parents when a suspicious image appears on their child’s device. It deals with the risks around sexting. 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. This is similar but not free. It helps people reboot their brain with help along the way. It’s called Brainbuddy. Here are some other programmes that may be useful: Covenant Eyes; Bark; NetNanny; Mobicip; Qustodio Parental Control; WebWatcher; Norton Family Premiere; OpenDNS Home VIP; PureSight Multi. Their appearance in this list does not constitute an endorsement by The Reward Foundation.
Your Brain on Porn
There are a variety of resources available to help parents deal with this tricky subject. The best book on the market 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”. Gary is an excellent science teacher who explains the brain’s reward or motivation system in a very accessible way for non-scientists. The book is an update on his popular TEDx talk from 2012. It is supported by yourbrainonporn.com, the largest and most comprehensive source of information about pornography on the Internet.
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. Your Brain on Porn has excellent tips about recovery set out by those who know best. Thousands of former users on porn recovery sites mention that it was Gary’s explanation of porn’s effects on the adolescent brain that helped them experiment with quitting porn.
The book is available in paperback, on Kindle or as an audiobook. It was updated in October 2018 to take account of the World Health Organisation’s recognition of a new diagnostic category of “Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder”. Translations are available in Dutch, Arabic and Hungarian so far, with others in the pipeline.
Here is a list of research items too, worth a skim.
Other recommended books
- Teacher and psychologist Collett Smart has brought out a new book “They’ll be okay.: 15 conversations to help your child through troubled times” It does what it says on the label.
- Child psychiatrist Dr Victoria Dunckley’s book “Reset your Child’s Brain” and her free blog explain the effects of too much screen time on the child’s brain. Importantly it sets out a plan for what parents can do to help their child get on track again.
Dr Dunckley doesn’t isolate porn use but focuses on internet use in general. 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.
Her book explains how parents can do this in a step-by-step guide in collaboration with the child’s school.
Books For Younger Children
“Pandora’s box is open. Now what do I do?” Gail Poyner is a psychologist and provides useful brain information and easy exercises to help children think through options.
“Good Pictures, Bad Pictures” by Kristen Jensen and Gail Poyner. Also a good book focusing on the child brain.
Not for Kids. Protecting Kids. Liz Walker has written a simple book for very young children with colourful graphics.
Free online resources for parents
- Former sociology professor and author, Dr Gail Dines, is founder of Culture Reframed. She and her team have developed a best-practice toolkit, which will help parents raise porn-resilient kids. See the Culture Reframed Parents Program. It provides help with those important conversations with children.
- Excellent free advice from anti-child abuse charity Stop It Now! Parents Protect
- 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.
- Advice from the NSPCC about online porn.
Most of the main free recovery websites such as RebootNation.org; PornHelp; NoFap.com; Fightthenewdrug.org; Go for Greatness and Addicted to Internet Porn are secular but have religious members too. Useful for parents to look at to get an idea of what those in recovery have experienced and are now coping with as they adjust.
There are good resources available too for faith- based communities such as Integrity Restored for Catholics, for Christians generally How Porn Harms, and MuslimMatters for those of the Islamic faith.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
If you have a child who has been assessed as being on the autism spectrum, you need to be aware that your child may be at a higher risk of becoming hooked on pornography than neurotypical children. If you suspect your child might be on the spectrum, it would be a good idea to have them assessed. Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition present from birth. It is not a mental disease. It affects about 1:100 people. 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?
The UK Government has introduced age verification legislation in part III of the Digital Economy Act 2017 to restrict access by under 18 year olds to internet pornography. See this blog about it for more details. It will come into effect on 15th July 2019. Be aware that if your child is a user, you may not know that or want to know it, but if so, sudden inaccessibility may have an impact on their behaviour.
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 (at foot of page) and follow us on Twitter (@brain_love_sex) for the latest developments.
The Parents’ Guide was last updated 4 June 2019
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