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Some tips for how to talk to your teen about watching porn. HINT: It's not to tell them to stop.

Porn has never been more available — or raunchier. What's it doing to kids' capacity for intimacy?

Who hasn't watched a little porn here and there?

You'd be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn't watched some porn or who doesn't enjoy it on an occasional basis. Generationally, though, the dynamics of porn have changed. Depending on your age, your ideas of what porn is and how it's affected your actual sex life will vary. But for the newest generations of sexually active youth, things have gotten pretty extreme.

I know of whence I speak, for I have a teenage son.


So what's the big deal with teens watching porn if everyone does it? Well, they are very different from adults. And times have changed.

The problem is that teenage porn use is not just a kid getting ahold of dad's girly magazine anymore. It's unfettered access to as much porn as a kid wants, as frequently as they want it, and with the ability to escalate to more and more extreme types as their brain desensitizes to it. And unfortunately, kids' brains are still very much in their formative years even in their late teens, so it's having an effect on the actual wiring of their sexual norms.

A study published in 2014 from Cambridge University tracked the behaviors of compulsive porn users:

Source: " Your Brain on Porn" based on findings from Cambridge University.

And that's not to mention the effect it has on women's perceived expectations of themselves and their partners' expectations of them because of porn's depictions. When even women's orgasms are shown as a caricaturized performance in service of pleasing a man, something gets really skewed in terms of what women can hope to experience for their own fulfillment.

OK, but what can we even do about it?

You could try frequent, random, and unannounced appearances in your kids' room to make them too paranoid to take advantage of "alone time." Or you could creatively find ways to make sure the family pet is always in there in the hopes that they'd be too wigged out to watch porn while Whiskers McButtonNose is looking on.

Image (text added) by John of Wales/Flickr.

But that seems like a lot more work and way less reliable than just talking with teens about it. Here's how I did it:

I sent my son some links to a documentary about what it can do to a developing teen's brain to gorge on porn (he was about 15 at the time). I asked him to find me and talk to me after he was done watching the documentary — I wanted to let him have some control about when the conversation happened, so it could be more productive and not feel like an ambush.

When he did, we talked about the research. It wasn't the most comfortable conversation in the world, but it also wasn't the worst. I let him know I didn't think it was shameful for him to watch porn, that I know a lot of people do, and that I wasn't going to place any unrealistic expectations on him to never watch porn.

I asked him what points the movie made that really hit home for him. I noted that porn and masturbation do not necessarily go hand-in-hand (SORRY). I also suggested he may benefit from thinking about what parameters he wanted to set for himself, like:

  • Is there a frequency of watching it he doesn't want to exceed in order to feel good about himself? (He decided that a couple of times a week was enough for him, and it was definitely a step back from the frequency he had been engaging in).
  • Is there a threshold of porn extremity he doesn't want to surpass in order to feel like he's not violating his own deeply empathetic nature? (He decided he just had no interest in watching anything that seemed sadistic and made a promise to himself — not me — that he'd shut it down and find something else if something crossed that line.)

The point really was that I can't waltz into my son's private life and think I'm going to dictate what choices he'll make. I mean, I could have had a parental power struggle that escalated into me taking away his computer and Internet unless he does what I say, but I don't think that would have taught him what he really needs to navigate this stuff — self-regulation.

So what happened with my son?

I noticed after our talk that he was spending a lot less time in his room doing ... "room things" and a lot more time with other people. He seems happier and no longer carries the ever-present sense of dissatisfaction and frustration of wondering if his real life will ever match up to what he's being told his sex life should be. He got to make a thoughtful and deliberate choice for himself on his own terms.

GIF from "30 Rock."

When you let a teen know that their porn habits today could affect their ability to have a fulfilling sexual relationship — a real one — down the road, some kids will care.

Of course, some kids just won't either. But at least this way, they're getting a chance to make a choice instead of just being railroaded into a lifetime of warped sexual norms without a shot at doing it differently. Porn companies don't care about your kids' health and well-being, so don't let them be the only influence weighing in on this.

It all starts with adults acknowledging the reality of teens' daily lives. We can do this, folks.

And for some more good, research based talk about it all, check out this really enlightening TED Talk by Gail Dines on bringing kids up in a "pornified culture." (Be warned: It's a very frank discussion about sexuality, and the f-word is prevalent throughout.)

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