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How to talk with young people about pornography

18 April 2020


Read our latest research Growing up with Porn here.


In today’s digital world, it’s no surprise that many young people come across pornography. This page contains advice and answers to frequently asked questions for parents and whānau who want to talk with their young people about pornography.

It’s normal for young people to be curious about sex and while younger children might see porn for the first time by accident, teens are more likely to be seeking it out. The best way to support them is to have open, honest conversations about what they might see and how it’s different from real sex and relationships.

Our research shows that rangatahi turn to porn for sex ed. They see stuff that’s unrealistic and problematic, so it’s good if parents and whānau can talk to them about it.

We spoke with young people across Aotearoa about their views on pornography and what they need from whānau when talking about porn. We hope these animations can help you to have conversations with your child in a positive and productive way. Take a listen.

How you approach the conversation matters

Have you talked to your child about sex? In order to start a conversation about pornography you need to have had the sex talk first. For support with this visit www.familyplanning.org.nz

  • Choose the right moment. A private, quiet time to talk, like a car ride or during an activity together.
  • Be open and honest. Acknowledge that this conversation may be awkward.
  • Show respect. Respect their opinions and boundaries; don’t embarrass them by making jokes.
  • Actively listen. Try to let your own ideas take a back seat and really listen.
  • Learn from them. Get them to teach you what they know about things like consent.
  • Be patient. Don’t give up, try and try again.
A woman and a teenager look at each other as if having a conversation

Helpful links

What to say about porn

When talking with rangatahi about pornography, there are some important things you can discuss with them, including:

Real sex is:

  • Between real people
  • Intimate: there’s kissing, hugging, caring
  • About pleasure
  • Positive communication and interaction

Porn is:

  • Performed by actors

  • Fantasy – not how real people interact and treat each other

  • Often lacking in consent 

  • Unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships

Aggression:

  • It’s common to have seen violence and aggression in pornography.
  • This most frequently shows men controlling or dominating another person, often women.
  • Talk to your young person about the importance of an equal balance of power in all intimate relationships and that violence is never okay.

Consent:

  • Consent is essential when it comes to sex and needs to be clear. Porn doesn’t often show this.

  • If you are unsure whether someone is consenting, you must stop and check in.

How to get started

Many parents find it challenging to start the conversation. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • Ask what they think is important in a healthy relationship. It’s a great way to discuss fantasy vs reality in pornography.
  • Ask whether how people look and act in pornography reflects what they see in the real world; at school, home and in the community.
  • Ask what they think the impacts of watching porn are. Try to respect their points of view, even if you disagree with them.
  • Ask what they think the impacts of viewing pornography might be for a younger brother or sister or family friend. This helps them to share without it being about them.
  • Ask how pornography makes them feel. It’s important to really listen to what they think.

We know that conversations about sex and pornography can be awkward and embarrassing and sometimes as adults we have no idea where to begin. We hope that these animations can help you to start the conversation in a way that suits the age and stage of your child.

Frequently asked questions


It's common for young people to see porn

Is my child really watching porn?

It’s common for young people to see porn, and chances are your child will see it at some point. Statistics show that three out of four young people have seen porn by the age of 17 and one in four by the age of 12. For younger children the first time they see porn is likely to be accidental, while teens are more likely to seek it out.

Our advice is to be proactive, starting this conversation is the best way to provide support if they do see pornography.

I know boys watch porn but girls don’t, do they?

It’s more common for boys to see porn but our research shows that girls also watch pornography for many of the same reasons boys do. Of the 67% of young people who have seen pornography, 75% were boys and 58% were girls.

How can I prevent my child from viewing pornography?

Parental controls or filters can be a useful tool for children or younger teens but they are only a partial solution. If you do have a filter, it’s still important that you talk with your child or teen about things they might come across online.

Find out more information on filters here.

How are they seeing pornography when I have family filters on my computers?

Younger children are much more likely to see porn for the first time by accident, or being shown it by someone else like a friend at school. Even with a filter, you won’t always have control over how your child accesses online content.

How do I support my child if someone shows them porn?

Letting your child know they can come to you and talk about anything they might have seen online without anger or judgement is really important. Images from pornography can be disturbing and confusing and parents can help them unpack these feelings. Talk about their feelings and let them know that what they are feeling is normal and you are there to support them. 

Why it's important to talk

Why do I need to talk about this?

This conversation is really important. It allows you to talk about topics that can help your child have healthy relationships now and in the future. They may not thank you for initiating this conversation but their future partners might!

Won’t my child come and talk to me if they need to?

This conversation can be awkward and while young people have said that they would like support and information about porn, they are unlikely to start the conversation. By initiating the conversation we are showing our children that this is ok to talk about.

When should I start having this conversation?

As soon as you can. Porn isn’t just an issue for teens, it’s also an issue for kids. Even if you don’t think your child has seen pornography it is better that you talk to them about it before someone else does.  The conversation may look different for different ages and stages but opening up the channels of communication about the difference between real sex and porn sex is really important and the sooner you begin the conversation the easier it is. In saying that if you haven’t started the conversation young it’s okay, it’s not too late. 

What is pornography?

What is classed as pornography?

In our research we have defined pornography as meaning explicit images, video or movies of a person or people having sex or doing sexual things and you can see their genitals. The main purpose of porn is sexual arousal, but people view porn for a variety of reasons – for example to learn about different ways people have sex, and to explore their sexuality.

What do young people see in pornography?

Like films – where you can view everything from cartoons to terrifying horror films – pornography is the same; there is a huge range. The most popular pornography isn’t likely to be aggressive, but it might have concerning and confusing messages around things like consent. Young people are also likely to see a variety of sexual acts and behaviours that look fun and easy to do in porn, but people might not necessarily enjoy these things in real life. It’s also very unlikely they’ll see condoms in porn.

While most young people tend not to look for degrading or aggressive porn, it’s likely they’ll see this at some point. Sometimes things in pornography can be disturbing or upsetting, so you should be ready to offer support if a young person is worried about something they’ve seen.

For more information on this take a look at our recent content analysis of pornography videos, Breaking Down Porn

Should I talk about different things depending on my child’s gender?

In short, no. All children are individuals regardless of their gender so while you may wish to begin the conversation differently depending on what you think might work best for your kid the overall conversation is the same. Sex should be about respect, consent and pleasure for everyone involved. As with a lot of shows and films, gender stereotypes are also seen in pornography. Unpacking these and talking about the impacts this might have on people is a great conversation to have. It’s often eye opening for young women to see that there are pressures on young men to perform in a certain way in sex just as there is for young women.

What are the negative impacts of pornography?

  • People might think there are certain roles to play when having sex.
  • Might contribute to body image issues if young people feel their bodies need to look a certain way.
  • Can give confusing messages about consent.
  • Young people might make assumptions about what good sex looks like without asking the person they are having sex with.
  • Can be disturbing and confusing for young people to see.
  • Can show aggressive behaviour, especially towards women. This might give the impression that women like men to be dominating and aggressive.
  • The tropes and narratives that exist in pornography can be highly problematic.
  • Doesn’t often show safer sex practices like condom use.

Without support to develop critical analysis skills around what they see in pornography these above facts can have an overall negative impact on a young person’s understanding of healthy relationships and consent. 

Is porn really that bad?

Some pornography has some really problematic messages when it comes to sex. But remember that pornography is made for adults, and we know that many adults can have a healthy relationship with pornography as they are more likely to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. This is what we also need to support our young people to be able to do. 

What is consent, isn’t it just saying yes?

Yes that’s a part of it. Consent needs to be an enthusiastic, informed and mutual ‘yes’ while knowing that you can withdraw your consent at any time. It’s more than just saying yes – it’s a conversation before and during sex, ensuring people are checking in with each other to see if they are enjoying what is happening and if they want to keep going. If anyone is ever unsure if someone is consenting they should stop and check in. 

Having the conversation

How do I start the conversation?

Be prepared. Think about what you are going to say and choose a good time to engage in a conversation. A private, quiet place when you’re engaged in an activity together or driving in the car is good. Anything where you don’t have to look at each other can make this conversation less confronting.

Remember that this is not a one off conversation so try and take the pressure off yourself that you need to get it ‘right’. This is a conversation that is revisited and evolves as your child matures.

Be open and honest, tell your child how this conversation makes you feel. If you feel awkward, say so. Tell them why you want to have this conversation, why you think it’s important and that you want the best for their relationships either now (if they are dating) or in the future.

I don’t watch porn. Should I go online and see what’s out there before having this conversation?

This is completely up to you. Some people find it useful while others might feel uncomfortable and want to avoid it. Either way you will be able to talk about what makes a healthy relationship and what real sex looks like so not viewing the content won’t put you at a disadvantage.

If you want to learn more about the content New Zealanders are viewing in porn, you can take a look at our recent research.

I’ve read that I should remain calm and keep my feelings in check, but why? I feel very strongly that I do not want my child watching pornography – isn’t it best to be clear about this?

Having strong feelings about your child viewing pornography is absolutely okay. Being able to share this with your child in a calm way is what’s important. If we enter the conversation from a place of fear or high anxiety it may be read as anger and could cause them to shut down and not feel that they can talk to you.

It’s normal for young people to be interested in sex and it’s important that young people aren’t made to feel shame about these feelings.

Talking to 10-13 year olds

A great place to start is asking if they know what pornography is. If they don’t know you can explain in simple language that it’s pictures or videos of people having sex.

Talk about healthy relationships. What makes a good friend or partner and then talk about how these sorts of relationships aren’t usually shown in pornography. Ask where they might see other unrealistic relationships in things they watch – music videos is a good one to talk about. Watching a music video together and encouraging children to think critically about what they see allows them to use those same skills if they ever see pornography. You could then talk about what impacts music videos might have on the viewer – topics you can cover are body image, gender stereotypes (how men and women are expected to behave), relationships and consent.

Other things you can unpack are the differences between porn vs real sex.

Talking to 14-17 year olds

Depending on the maturity level of your young person this can be a very different conversation. You can start by talking directly about pornography and asking them their opinions on the following topics.

What positive/negative influence do they think pornography has on the lives of their peers?

Do they think pornography shows real sex and relationships? Why/why not?

Do they think there is much consent shown in pornography? Why/why not?

What positive/negative messages does pornography have about men and women?

Are there any problematic messages found in pornography and what are they?

For example: body image, gender stereotypes, sexuality, consent and relationships.

Ask whether these messages reflect what they see in the real world, their friends, family and wider community.

If they start giving you one word answers or answers that you think might be problematic you can encourage them to say more, ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What do you mean by that?” This sort of questioning requires them to delve deeper and think critically about their answers.

Challenges and where to get help

Is this really my job, shouldn’t they be talking about this at school?

Thankfully young people are starting to learn about things like healthy relationships and consent in schools which is a great. Hopefully in the future pornography literacy will also be included in the curriculum.

But regardless, this is a conversation that needs to be coming from different voices in a young person’s life. As an integral part of our children’s lives it’s super important that we show them that we want to support them to have healthy relationships by having these tricky conversations.

I’ve tried to have this conversation before and my teenager refuses to talk about it - what can I do?

Firstly well done for trying to start the conversation. This response isn’t uncommon as it is likely that your teen is feeling awkward or embarrassed especially if this is the first time you’ve talked about it. Our advice is not to give up, try and try again. Explain why you think it’s important that you have this conversation.

Another great way to begin is to ask what they think the impacts of viewing pornography would be a on a younger sibling or family friend. This allows them to share without it being about them.

I’m worried my teen might have a problem with pornography. What should I do?

First and foremost talk to them. If you are not getting anywhere and are worried that pornography might be affecting their lives; for example they stop doing activities they love in favour of watching porn or you think it is impacting on their relationships, there are a range of specialist agencies that can provide support and advice for you and your child. You are not alone and it’s important to reach out.

  • 1737 'Need to Talk' - if you, or someone you know, needs mental wellbeing support or advice call or text 1737 anytime, for free, for support from a trained counsellor. Whatever it is.
  • Safe to talk - is a free, confidential, non-judgmental service for anyone affected by sexual harm. 24 hour support by trained counsellors via text, phone, online chat or email.  Website/online chat: www.safetotalk.nz Freephone: 0800 044 334 Text: 4334 
  • Aunty Dee - if your problems are getting you down, and you’re feeling confused, talk to Aunty Dee. She’s here to help you.
  • Netsafe - is an independent, non-profit online safety organization. Taking a technology-positive approach to the challenges digital technology presents, Netsafe works to help people in New Zealand the advantage of the opportunities available through technology by providing practical tools, support and advice for managing online challenges.
  • In the Know - is a website from The Light Project for young people with questions or concerns about porn, nudes or online sexual experiences.

Will my child become addicted?

People often talk about pornography being addictive in a similar way as drugs or alcohol, and young people sometimes describe their relationship with porn as an addiction.

Pornography is not officially recognised as an addiction, and there is no evidence that it leads to problems with their physical health in the way that cigarettes or other substances can.

Some young people do struggle with porn use, but most are unlikely to feel this way even if they look at it often. Young people tend to spend a lot of time online, for example on Netflix, YouTube or social media, and porn tends to make up a very small part of their time online.

If a young person is worried about being addicted, encourage them to talk about how they feel. Their feelings might be related to various issues, like concern about their sexual feelings, about masturbation and how often they do it, or about seeing things in porn that make them feel uncomfortable. Using a label like addiction can sometimes make it harder to talk about these other things.

Conversation examples

To help get you started, here are some examples of ways you might approach your young person.

10 - 13 year olds (Scenario 1)

Parent: Hey so what are you watching?

Child: Music videos

Parent: Cool can I watch one with you?

Child: Ok OR If you have to.

Parent: So what do you think of this music video?

Child: It’s ok

Parent: What messages do you think it has about men and women?

Child: That women are really slim and men have muscles etc

Parent: Yeah it looks like it, do you think that those messages have any impact on young people watching them?

Child: Na they know it’s acted/pretend/just a music video OR Yes they might think that they have to look that way and it might make them feel bad about their body.

Parent: That’s right. It’s important to remember that this is fantasy and not like real life. Is there anything else you might see online or on tv that has the same sort of messages?

Child: Lots of TV, film and games show the same stuff.

Parent: Yeah there’s lots of stuff online as well that shows stuff that isn’t real life. I know we have filters on our devices that protect us from seeing stuff we don’t want to but I think it’s important that you know that you might see images or videos online that you don’t mean to like pornography.

Have you heard of that before?

Child: Yes OR No

Parent: Ok well pornography shows people having sex and it’s for adults to watch not kids. But sometimes people see things by accident.

Child:Yeah I know I’m not stupid OR Eww sounds gross.

Parent: Just like this music video it’s not real and it doesn’t show real people they are actors. So if you ever see any it’s important to know that real sex isn’t like that.

And if you do ever see it you can come and talk to me about it because it can be confusing. Just like this music video could be confusing for people if they thought they had to act like that.

Child: Ok

Parent: Thanks for talking to me, I think it’s great that we can talk to each other about these things.

10 - 13 year olds (Scenario 2)

Parent: I heard you talking to your friends about a video Sam was showing at school and I just wanted to talk to you about it.

Child: OK.

Parent: Did you see the video? I won’t be angry or upset if you have I just think it’s important that we talk about it.

Child: Yes I saw it.

Parent: Do you want to tell me what was in it?

Child: It showed people having sex OR Naked bodies OR No I don’t want to.

Parent: Ok how did it make you feel? OR That’s ok, did the video show naked people?

Child: It made me feeling a bit gross OR It was ok OR Yes it did.

Parent: Have you seen videos like this before? Again I’m not angry or upset I just think it’s important that we talk about this.

Child: No OR Yes.

Parent: OK you know how we talked about what sex and intimacy is like? That it’s about people caring about each other and enjoying themselves. Did what you saw in the video show this?

Child: Not really.

Parent: How was it different?

Child: The woman looked like she was in pain OR They didn’t look like they cared for each other OR There wasn’t any kissing and cuddling.

Parent: Right ok well what you saw is a fantasy. It’s like when you go to a movie and it’s made up. The video you saw didn’t show real sex and it’s really important that when people are having sex in real life that there is lots of consent and everyone is enjoying themselves.

While I’d rather you didn’t watch those sort of videos I know that sometimes we are shown things by someone else or see things we don’t look for.

If you ever want to talk about anything you see online or are shown by others I’d really like if you talked to me about it. Does that sound ok?

Child: Yes OR Sure.

14 - 17 year olds (Scenario 1)

Parent: Hey I saw this article/brochure about young people and pornography. It says that one in four kids have seen porn by age 12 in NZ. What do you think about that?

Teen: I dunno. Do we have to talk about this?

Parent: Yeah I think it’s important that we talk about this stuff, even if it feels awkward. Do think it’s an accurate statistic?

Teen: Yeah I guess so.

Parent: Had you seen porn at that age?

Teen: Yeah OR Na.

Parent: Do you think if your little sister/brother saw porn I should be worried?

Teen: Maybe.

Parent: Why do you think that?

Teen: Well it sometimes shows crazy sex OR 'Cos it’s violent OR 'Cos it’s unrealistic OR 'Cos she’s too young

Parent: Do you think it shows consent?

Teen: Na not really.

Parent: Ok so do you think it’s important to talk to your younger sister/brother about what’s in porn?

Teen: Yeah probably.

Parent: Ok cool so what sorts of things should I tell them?

Teen: Just that it’s not like real sex and there’s no consent and consent is important.

Parent: Great thanks.

14 - 17 year olds (Scenario 2)

Parent: Hey I want to talk to you about porn.

Teen: Oh god stop!

Parent: I know it feels awkward and embarrassing talking to your mum/dad about this and I feel a bit awkward too but I think it’s important that we talk about it.

Teen: Grumble grumble.

Parent: Have you seen pornography? I’m not going to be angry I just want to know if you’ve seen it.

Teen: No/yes.

Parent: Do you think your friends or people in your class have seen it?

Teen: Yeah probably.

Parent: Do you think there is any problem with people your age seeing porn?

Teen: Nah OR Yeah maybe.

Parent: Why don’t you think there is any problem?/What do you think the problems are?

Teen: I dunno cos it’s just stupid/fun/not real and people know that OR 'Cos it’s not realistic of what real sex is like.

Parent: So do you think everyone watches it knowing that it’s not what real sex is like? OR What’s unrealistic about it?

Teen: Maybe not, maybe younger kids wouldn’t. OR It’s actors, sometimes it looks like it hurts but they pretend they are enjoying it.

Parent: You’ve learnt about consent at school haven’t you? Do you think there is much consent shown in porn?

Teen: Na not really.

Parent: Could this be a problem?

Teen: Yeah.

Parent: Why do you think that?

Teen: 'Cos people might not think they need to get consent and hurt others.