Table of Contents
Before embarking on this exploration about the risks around porn, let’s remember why it is necessary. We want children to grow up to have happy, loving and safe intimate relationships. Watch this charming video, “what is love?” to remind us of what it looks like in practice.
As parents and caregivers you are the most important role models and source of guidance for your children. Until the age of 18, at least, you are responsible for their well being. This parents’ guide to internet pornography will help you feel confident enough to have those challenging conversations. Learn about the mental health effects of porn, the physical impact, and pornography’s side effects. This knowledge will let you protect your children from a range of harms that have been identified by health professionals and by thousands of former users. We include a section on sexting and the legal implications for you and your child.
During the pandemic, boredom is going to allow even more kids by accident or design, to encounter an endless supply of hardcore pornography. Unless you educate yourself, and then your kid(s), about the potential effects on mental and physical health, then there are risks for your child developing porn-related problems in the future. Sorry to be negative, but this is a reality check. Adolescents are the most vulnerable to developing mental health problems and addictions over time. Here is a good short video by a trauma psychiatrist talking about coping with the pandemic.
Overview of Porn Risks
A pornography habit has the potential to cause the following side effects:
- withdrawing from social activity
- developing a secret life
- lying to and deceiving others
- becoming self-centred
- choosing porn over people
- feeling irritable when not able to access porn
- feeling angry and depressed
- experiencing mood swings
- pervasive anxiety and fearfulness
- feeling powerless in relation to porn
Sexually objectifying other people
- treating people as sex objects
- judging people primarily in terms of their body parts
- experiencing mood swings
- disrespecting other people’s needs for privacy and safety
- being insensitive about sexually harmful behaviour
Engaging in risky and dangerous behaviour
- accessing porn at work or school
- accessing child abuse imagery
- participating in degrading, abusive, violent, or criminal sexual activity
- producing, distributing or selling porn
- engaging in physically unsafe and harmful sex
Unhappy intimate partner
- relationship is marred by dishonesty and deception about porn use
- partner views porn as infidelity i.e. “cheating”
- partner is increasingly upset and angry
- relationship deteriorates due to lack of trust and respect
- partner is concerned about the welfare of the children
- partner feels sexually inadequate and threatened by the porn
- loss of emotional closeness and mutual sexual enjoyment
- loss of interest in sex with a real partner
- difficulty becoming aroused and/or achieving orgasm without porn
- intrusive thoughts, fantasies, and images of porn during sex
- becoming sexually demanding and or rough in sex
- having difficulty connecting love and caring with sex
- feeling sexually out of control and compulsive
- increased interest in risky, degrading, abusive, and/or illegal sex
- growing dissatisfaction with sex
- sexual dysfunctions – inability to orgasm, delated ejaculation, erectile dysfunction
- feeling disconnected from person values, beliefs and goals
- loss of personal integrity
- damaged self-esteem
- persistent feelings of guilt and shame
- feeling controlled by porn
Neglecting important areas of life
- personal health (sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and poor self-care)
- family life (neglecting partner, children, pets and household responsibilities)
- work and school pursuits (reduced focus, productivity, and advancement)
- finances (spending on porn depletes resources)
- spirituality (alienation from faith and spiritual practice)
Addiction to Porn
- craving porn intensely and persistently
- difficulty controlling thoughts, or exposure to, and use of porn
- inability to discontinue porn use despite negative consequences
- repeated failures to stop using porn
- requiring more extreme content or intense exposures to porn to get same effect (habituation symptoms)
- experiencing discomfort and irritability when deprived of porn (withdrawal symptoms)
The above list is adapted from the book “The Porn Trap” by Wendy Malz. While most of these relate to older adolescents and young adults, some are experienced by children too.
Around puberty, children start to become particularly curious about sex and want to learn as much as possible about it. Why? Because Nature’s number one priority is sexual reproduction, passing on genes. And we are programmed to focus on it, ready or not. The internet is the first place children start to look for answers.
Access to free, streaming, hardcore pornography is one of the biggest, unregulated social experiments ever unleashed in history. It adds a whole new range of risky behaviours to an already risk-seeking brain. See this short video to understand more about the adolescent brain with advice for parents from a neuroscientist.
Boys tend to use porn sites more than girls, and girls prefer social media sites and are more interested in erotic stories, such as 50 Shades of Grey. This is a separate risk for girls. For example, we heard about a 9 year old girl who downloaded and was reading narrative porn on her Kindle. This was despite her mother installing restrictions and controls on all other devices she has access to, but not Kindle.
Many teens say they wish their parents would be more proactive in discussing pornography with them. If they can’t ask you for help, where will they go?
The largest and most popular website Pornhub promotes anxiety-producing videos such as incest porn, strangulation, torture, rape and gangbangs. Incest is one of the fastest growing genre according to Pornhub‘s own reports. Most of it is free and easy to access. Pornhub see the pandemic as a great chance to hook more users and are offering free access to their premium (usually paid) sites in all countries.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
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 if possible. Young men in particular with ASD or special learning needs are disproportionately represented in the statistics for sexual offending. It affects at least 1-2% people of the population at large, true prevalence is unknown, yet more than 30% of sex offenders are on the spectrum or have learning difficulties. Here is a new paper about one young man’s experience. Contact us for access to the paper if required.
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition present from birth. It is not a mental health disorder. While it is a much more common condition among males, 5:1, females can have it too. For more information read these blogs on porn and autism; a mother’s story; and autism: real or fake?
Short videos on protecting children
This 2 minute, bright animation provides a quick overview and supports the urgent need for implementation of age verification legislation to protect children. You can show it to your children too as it does not contain pornography.
This 5-minute video is an excerpt from a documentary from New Zealand. In it a neurosurgeon explains what porn addiction looks like in the brain and shows how similar it is to cocaine addiction.
In this TEDx talk “Sex, Porn and Manhood“, Professor Warren Binford, speaking as both a mother and concerned teacher, gives a very good overview of how porn affects children. This TEDx talk by Professor Gail Dines “Growing up in a pornified culture” (13 mins) explains in clear terms how music videos, porn sites and social media are shaping our children’s sexuality today.
Here’s a funny TEDx talk (16 mins) called “How Porn Skews Sexual Expectations” by an American mother and sex educator Cindy Pierce. Her parents’ guide says 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.
Children as young as six are accessing hardcore pornography. Some kids are fascinated and eagerly seek out more, others are traumatised and have nightmares. Hardcore adult material is not suitable for children of any age because of their stage of brain development. Here is a report updated in 2017 called “…I didn’t know it was normal to watch…” a qualitative and quantitative examination of the impact of online pornography on the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of children and young people.” It was commissioned from Middlesex University by the NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales.
New Documentary by Parents for Parents about Porn’s Effects on Kids
We totally recommend that you watch this new video. You can watch the free trailer on Vimeo. It is a documentary made by parents, who happen to be filmmakers, for parents. It is the best overview of the issue we have seen and has great examples of how to have those tricky conversations with your kids.
Viewing the underlying video costs only £4.99 and it is the best spent money you can hope for. (We do not receive any money for this recommendation.) Many of the experts and resources we recommend in this parents’ guide appear in the documentary too. Rob and Zareen put all their money and expertise into making this as a service to other parents, so please purchase it if you can. Thanks. If you don’t want to spend any money, there are other excellent videos below available for free.
Top tips for talking to children
- “Don’t blame and shame” a child for watching pornography. It is everywhere online, popping up in 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 over time as they go through the teen years. Each must be age appropriate, ask for help if you need it. Fathers and mothers both need to play a role in educating themselves and their kids about the impact of technology today.
Help with those difficult conversations
- Former sociology professor, author and mother, Dr Gail Dines, is founder of Culture Reframed. See her TEDx talk “Growing up in a pornified culture” (13 mins). She and her team have developed a free, best-practice toolkit which will help parents raise porn-resilient kids. How to have the conversation: see the Culture Reframed Parents Program.
- This is a new book by Colette Smart, a mother, former teacher and psychologist called “They’ll Be Ok“. The book has 15 examples of conversations you can have with your kids. The website also has some useful TV interviewees with the author sharing some key ideas too.
Top tips about smartphones
- Delay giving your child a smartphone or tablet for as long as possible. Mobile phones mean you can stay in contact. While it may seems like a reward for hard work in primary or elementary school to present your child with a smartphone on entering secondary school, observe what it is doing to their academic attainment in the months that follow. Do children really need 24 hour-a-day access to the internet? While children might 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, tablets and gaming devices from your child’s bedroom. Lack of restorative sleep is increasing stress, depression and anxiety in many children today. They need a full night’s sleep, eight hours at least, to help them integrate the day’s learning, help them grow, make sense of their emotions and feel well.
- 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 made to be 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.
- Recent research suggests that filters alone will not protect your children from accessing online pornography. This parents’ guide emphasises the need to keep the lines of communication open as 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 checking on a regular basis that they are working. Check with Childline or your internet provider about the latest advice on filters.
What Apps might help?
- There are many 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 app 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. The appearance of programmes in this list does not constitute an endorsement by The Reward Foundation. We do not receive financial benefit from sales of these apps.
Your Brain on Porn
The best book on the market is by our honorary research officer Gary Wilson. We would say that, but it happens to be true. It is called “Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction”. It is a great parents’ guide too. Give it to your children to read as it has hundreds of stories by other young people and their struggles with porn. Many started watching internet porn at a young age.
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.
The book is available in paperback, on Kindle or as an audiobook. In fact the audio version is available for FREE in the UK here, and for people in the USA, here. It was updated in October 2018 to take account of the World Health Organization’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.
Reset Your Child’s Brain
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, some children need longer before they can resume use but at a more limited level.
Her book also explains how parents can do this in a step-by-step parents’ guide in collaboration with the child’s school to ensure best cooperation on two fronts.
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.
Hamish and the Shadow Secret. This is a new book by Liz Walker for children aged 8-12 years.
More free online resources for parents
- Learn about the health, legal, educational and relationship impacts of pornography use on The Reward Foundation website along with advice on quitting.
- See how the Culture Reframed Parents Program helps parents to deal with current cultural changes and their impact on children.
- User-friendly harmful sexual behaviour prevention toolkit from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation.
- Excellent free advice from anti-child abuse charity Stop It Now! Parents Protect
- Fight the New Drug’s How to talk to your kids about porn.
- 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.
- For parents in Scotland contact Children 1st.
Recovery websites for young users
Most of the main free recovery websites such as yourbrainonporn.com; RebootNation.org; PornHelp; NoFap.com; Fightthenewdrug.org; Go for Greatness and Addicted to Internet Porn are secular but have religious users 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 Naked Truth Project (UK) How Porn Harms (US), and MuslimMatters for those of the Islamic faith. Please contact us if there are any other faith-based projects we can signpost.
Regular use of internet pornography by children shapes the child’s brain, their sexual arousal template. It has a big influence on sexting and cyberbullying. The more children watch hardcore porn, the more they need higher and higher levels of sexual arousal. This is because the brain habituates and becomes desensitised to lower levels of stimulation. Over time this can lead to a host of physical and mental mental problems and having no pleasure response to everyday activities. A bigger concern for parents should be the potential legal implications. See here for some key information on sexting, revenge porn etc which are increasingly being prosecuted by the Police. Sexting in Scotland. Sexting in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
See anti-child abuse charity Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s new harmful sexual behaviour prevention toolkit aimed at parents, carers, family members and professionals. The Reward Foundation is mentioned as a source of help.
In the UK, the police are required by law to note any sexting incidents in the Police Criminal History system. If your child is caught with indecent images and has been coercive in obtaining them or passing them on to others, he or she could be charged by the police. Because sexual offences are considered very seriously by the police, that sexting offence, recorded in the police criminal history system, will be passed on to a prospective employer when an enhanced check is requested for work with vulnerable people. This includes voluntary work.
Sexting may seem like a harmless form of flirting, but if it is aggressive or coercive, the impact could have serious longer term implications for your child’s career prospects. Regular pornography use models coercion.
The UK Government has postponed (not cancelled) its commitment to protecting children online. See this letter from a government minister to the Secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety.
The purpose of the age verification legislation (Digital Economy Act, Part 3) was to make commercial pornography companies install more effective age verification software to restrict access by under 18 year olds to commercial pornography websites. See this blog about it for more details. The new regulations seek to include social media sites as well as commercial pornography websites.
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 12 October 2020
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