We’ll cut to the chase on this topic: the best way to talk to an internet-obsessed teen about sex is openly and honestly. This article will offer tips, advice, and introduce ideas to help you with the how and the what of your open and honest conversation. We’ll back up our suggestions with links to research so you can read the primary sources for yourself. If you want the super-quick summary of what we’re about to say, that’s it. Be open. Be honest. And for their sake, don’t be afraid of the conversation: your kids need you on this one more than you may realize. Decades of research prove your kids not only need your help on this one – they want it, too.
Sex, Porn, and Erotic Images are Everywhere
Here’s something we don’t need to research to know is true: humans are sexual beings. From the moment we’re born to the moment we die, sexuality is part of our lives. It may be a challenge to see when we’re very young or very old, but nevertheless, it’s there. That’s one reason no matter where you look, from pop music to advertising to movies and TV shows, you’ll find a sexual undercurrent buried beneath – or often foregrounded, right alongside – the music, the images, and the storylines we encounter every day simply by moving through the world.
We encounter them. Our kids encounter them, whether we like it or not.
As parents, we’d be naïve to ignore this default state of the modern world. We’d be even more naïve to ignore the impact of the digital revolution on our kid’s access to sexualized material, from outright pornography to the soft erotica of network television to subliminal messaging in advertising media. And we’d be the most naïve creatures on earth if we failed to recognize the effect this virtually unfettered access has on the way our adolescents develop ideas about sex, sexuality, and relationships.
Sex Talk: Tips and Advice
The first thing to know is that the days of “The Big Talk” should be over, relegated to their proper place back in the 20th century. Conversations about sex and sexuality should be ongoing, not a one-time thing. They don’t have to be frequent, but part of the problem is that most parents have a hangover from the way their parents spoke to them about sex. Granted, some of our parents did a great job, but most didn’t. The information we received was incomplete, and the manner in which our parents offered it was likely riddled with tension. Most of us would agree “The Talk” we got back in the 70s, 80s, or 90s was weird and uncomfortable.
Time to move past that. Because, as Dr. Laurence Steinberg says in this Psychology Today article,
“One generation’s prohibitions have a way of becoming the next generation’s inhibitions.”
That’s Tip #1:
Be ready to make the discussion ongoing. When you look into this topic online, this point is often preceded by the advice to start the discussion early. You’ll see the phrase early and often over and over. But how early is too early? The rule of thumb is that when your child asks a direct question, it means they’re ready for a real answer. Always in language they can understand, matched to their stage of development, of course. But if your six-year old asks you, “What’s an orgasm?” then you need to answer.
The idea is that the earlier you start the conversation and establish lines of communication that aren’t fraught with your emotional baggage, your kids are more likely to ask you about sex when they approach an age when it’s likely they’ll be curious about experimenting with sex.
Which brings us to our next tip.
Tip #2: It’s Never Too Late
For whatever reason, you didn’t start the conversation early. You waited. Or you did some version of the archaic “Big Talk” when your kid – who’s now an adolescent, possibly binging on internet porn in full hormonal glory – was still relatively innocent. That doesn’t matter. Say your son is fifteen, and you walk in on him masturbating to porn on his laptop. Then you review his browsing history and find visits to porn sites. Maybe a few, maybe hundreds.
Don’t freak out.
Your teenager – and it could very well be a girl, not a boy, of course – is following their natural impulses. It’s your job to take advantage of the moment. We’re not saying do it right then and there, because that would be weird and uncomfortable. Wait until the hormones clear – both theirs and your adrenaline/shock rush at what you just saw – and then open by owning your side. Try something like,
“I know I should have talked about this with you earlier, but I didn’t. So here we are. I think we should talk about sex, pornography, and anything else you’re curious about.”
You can explain you didn’t know what to say, you were nervous, whatever you like, but open with some humility and get the conversation started. It’s extremely helpful if you acknowledge talking about it makes you uncomfortable, if it does. Then you’ll both be in the same boat, and you can move forward together.
Tip #3: Ask Them What They Know, and Start There
You initiate the conversation, but let them take the lead. It’s important to discuss sex with your teen rather than lecture them about it, especially if they’re internet-obsessed – which is normal for a 21st century kid – and already watching porn. They probably think they know a lot about the subject, and this is the time for you to gauge what they know and correct gaps or errors in their knowledge both for their health and their general understanding of sex and sexuality.
Allow your teen ownership of their knowledge and let them lead the discussion, but you guide the content of the conversation by listening and asking salient questions, such as:
What do you know about sexually transmitted diseases?
What do you know about contraception?
What do you know about consent?
You may be surprised by the contrast between what your teen knows, thinks they know, and doesn’t know. They may have sophisticated knowledge about some aspects of sex and sexuality, but a hopelessly naïve impression of others. That’s because when they first got interested in sex – if they felt they couldn’t ask you – they asked peers, their peers’ older siblings, and, yes: they asked The Google. Their peers (and their siblings) most likely told them everything they know, but unfortunately, those kids may not have had solid and reliable information. Add to that the fact they were probably exaggerating their knowledge and experience to appear cool and worldly, and what you get is your teen walking around thinking they know things, but really only having partial information based on half-truths and teenage rumor.
With regards to teenagers learning about sex from the internet – from Google searches – it’s difficult to imagine a teenager clicking on an fact sheet from the CDC like this one when their peers may be sending them links to videos and images that are much more appealing to their immediate interests and, to put it mildly, much for fulfilling for their immediate needs. Which brings us to our next topic: internet porn.
Tip #4: Talk About Pornography
If you find your teenager watching porn, don’t shame them for it, no matter what your opinion is about pornography in general. Use the moment as a launching point for frank discussion about what porn is and what porn is not. Share the following fundamental facts with them:
- Pornography is about money. Your teenager needs to know that pornography exists, primarily, for porn producers to make money. Here’s some information on the porn business from a recent article in Medium Magazine:
- The porn industry is worth about $97 billion dollars – more than Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association combined.
- One porn site reports around 87.8 billion views per year
- People visit porn sites more per month than they visit Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined.
- Porn Sex is not real sex. Your teenager needs to know the sex depicted in pornography is staged. Most people don’t have sex like porn stars. A small percentage of people do, but for the majority of people on earth, sex is not an athletic event best performed by circus contortionists.
- Real people don’t look like porn stars. Porn actors are real humans, granted. However, most female porn stars have artificially enhanced breasts and lips, and almost every still porn image is digitally altered. In addition, the average male penis is 5.8 inches in length, while the average porn penis is 8 inches or over.
- Real people don’t act like porn stars. Again, porn actors are real humans. Fact. However, most people don’t act like porn stars. They don’t answer the doorbell and strip off their clothes before five minutes pass. They majority of women in the world don’t go from random conversations with strangers on the street right to sex in the back of a car, and the majority of men in the world would never proposition a woman to do that, either.
Your teen needs to have these things explained to them because when they watch too much porn, they can form unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships. They can mistakenly think porn is the norm, and if they’re not having sex like porn stars, then they’re abnormal. They may develop negative self-esteem, negative body-image issues, and a host of other things that can damage their long-term concept of themselves, their potential sex partners, the role sex plays in healthy relationships.
Tip # 5: Strategies and Resources for Your Dialogue
Remember: it’s an ongoing dialogue, not a one-off conversation.
Even so, all the talk in the world may not help your teenager when they come to the moment of truth: to have or not to have sex. What your teenager does in that moment depends on the information they have available to them. Research proves that the more factual information a teenager has about sex and the more engaged their parents are in their awareness of sex, the less likely teenagers are to engage in risky sexual behavior. That’s true whatever the parent’s point of view on sex and sexuality is: it could be conservative or progressive: either way, an informed kid makes better decisions.
But once you get past the facts about anatomy, STDs, pregnancy, and the like, how do you prepare kids for the making split-second decisions when you’re not there to check in with? The article “Parent-Based Interventions to Reduce Adolescent Problem Behaviors: New Directions for Self-Regulation Approaches” by James Jaccard and Nicole Levitz offers these three evidence-based approaches to helping your teen make good decisions when it counts the most:
- Practice “If…then…” scenarios. Once you teach them – or help clarify – the facts about sex and sexuality, talk through situations where you say “If situation X occurs, then I will perform behavior Y.”
- Use Stories. Data from this study show that stories involving characters who “…encounter and then resolve a crisis” are both persuasive and have a positive effect when teens make sexual choices later. The study confirms that teaching narratives have protective effects even when the stories are fictional.
- Mental Contrasting. This technique involves encouraging a teenager to imagine a positive outcome they’d like to achieve, and then contrast that visualization to obstacles to that outcome. This can help teenagers realize that what they think they might want to happen might not happen in reality, thereby causing them to recalibrate their expectations going forward. This is more than an if, then technique: it asks teens to adjust their thinking before the situation occurs, and can lead to a more health, patient approach to sexual situations.
Communication Is Everything
Talking to an internet-obsessed teenager about sex is exactly the same as talking to a non-internet obsessed teenager about sex – it’s most effective when it’s open, honest, and based on real facts about the real world. The only real difference is that the internet obsessed teen has probably seen more sex and sexual images than you did at their age. That’s an unavoidable fact of the information era. You may have the strictest protections and filters available on your teenager’s laptop, phone, and cable channel options, but the truth is that nothing will stop a teenager from watching porn if they’re motivated to do so. They can see it at a friend’s house, on a phone on the school bus, or anywhere they have access to a device with a wireless connection.
That’s why it’s critical for you to get involved in the conversation, and help guide your teenager through decisions that can affect the way they view and experience sex, sexuality, and relationships for the rest of their lives. During adolescence, their brains are forming millions of new connections every day, and creating neural pathways that lay the foundation for their adult identity and actions. You want their brains, bodies, and behavior to be healthy and fulfilling. The most effective way to do that is give them the best information available so they can make intelligent, informed decisions. That’s true no matter what your perspective on sex may be.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.