Prevent and prepare for the talk before it happens with these expert tips.
When kids are left to their own devices (literally) there’s the chance they could be exposed to inappropriate content they don’t yet understand. As parents, we do our best to curate their online experiences, but even with the best intentions we can’t always be on top of what they’re watching. Your kid may be playing on a free art app when an ad for a shooting game pops up or they fall down the YouTube rabbit hole only to click onto a pornographic video (true stories, in both cases!). How we respond to these incidents, based on age, matters.
“Questions such as 'what do I say?' and 'how much am I supposed to tell them?' come up, and parents worry that they might frighten their children or make their teens uncomfortable,” says Jordan Foster, ySafe managing director and clinical psychologist. “Parents of teenagers also question whether or not they need to speak to their kids about pornography. For both children and teenagers, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.”
Here are ways to talk to your kids about online content they might not be ready to see.
Naturally it’s upsetting to see that your kid has been exposed to something inappropriate for their age. But your reaction can make all the difference in what they take away from the experience. “Try to be mindful about projecting your own fears or opinions directly onto them, and instead see these situations as an opportunity to shape their beliefs and values in a constructive way,” says Foster. Getting upset can make them feel like they’re in trouble; instead, try to stay calm and maintain your composure. “This says to your child that the situation is under control and that they don’t need to panic.”
Ask questions first.
Try to understand how much your kid saw, what they thought they saw, and how they felt about it. Acknowledge their feelings without judgement. “Start broad, and get to the specifics only if you have to,” says Foster. Try to normalize body parts to reduce their fear or embarrassment. “This decreases feelings of distress for both the child and the parent and leaves little room for children to feel ashamed or scared about their bodies,” says Foster. Make sure they understand that these are made up stories that are not real too. “Again, remember to only share information with the child if they have asked for it or have questions about it. Be mindful not to give too many details to avoid raising thoughts in a child's mind that they didn't have previously.”
Keep it real.
For older kids, it’s important to educate teens about the unhealthy or unrealistic messages that pornographic videos can often convey. “It is important to inform teenagers about the perils of pornography, specifically focusing on the message that pornography is not a reflection of a healthy, consensual relationship,” says Foster. “It’s important to touch on topics such as consent (both how to say ‘no’ and how to accept ‘no’), respect, assertiveness, positive body image, and trust, and discourage other attributes of pornography such as coercion, violence, and unhealthy body image.”
Set parental controls.
Once you have the conversation about it, try to understand how they found the content in the first place to avoid it from happening again. For kids aged 9 and under, Foster suggests turning on Google Safe Search on all of their devices, to filter out potentially inappropriate search results. For kids 10 and over, ySafe suggests using parental control tools. “These are helpful tools that parents can use to block access to pornography and other adult content,” says Foster.