A 2017 research study examined how parents responded when their younger-than-12-year-old children were exposed to adult content. “A Qualitative Study of what U.S. Parents Say and Do when Their Young Children See Pornography” involved parents completing a survey questionnaire about their reaction to such a situation.
This study found that parents reacted in one of five ways:
- Punitive measures, or directing shame at the child;
- Calm and factual;
- Panicky or fearful;
- Ignored, minimized, or denied what had happened, or lied to their child about what the child had viewed.
Many of the 279 parents who participated also reported not knowing what to say or do.
Of the parents that participated in this study, 69% said that, to their knowledge, their child’s viewing of pornography was unintentional, 24% said it was intentional, and 6% said they were not certain. A majority of parents reported they reacted calmly and were willing to provide their child with information. The second most common reaction was panic, fear, and a loss for words. As few as 4% of the parents reported that they acted by hitting, punishing, or threatening their child.
Troublingly, the research article found that “most parents reported that they were not perturbed that their children had seen pornography.” The study describes some of these parents as finding the situation funny and amusing.
A seven-year-old girl’s father wrote, “I was surprised but also a little amused. I didn’t think it would cause any harm so I didn’t think it was a big deal.” Another parent of a ten-year-old reported laughing because it was “funny to see a child watching porn.” A third parent is mentioned who tried to normalize pornography by telling her son that “all men keep pictures of naked ladies on their computer and that’s OK.”
Despite the fact that a majority of the parents were not disturbed that their young child had been exposed to pornography, many parents reported feeling afraid and worried about their child’s mental state. For some of these parents, their fears were instantly rationalized. One mother reported her son burst into tears. Another parent wrote, “My son was pretty messed up for a little bit. He was withdrawn and became very afraid of being alone with older males . . . .”
A number of parents requested that their pediatricians start providing materials on how to address one’s child being exposed to adult content. In addition, parents expressed that information about “any negative impacts of pornography on children, what to say to children when they have seen pornography, and how to use internet filtering software of pop-up blockers would be useful.”
This study makes clear there are many different ways parents react to their young children seeing pornography.
However, out of all 279 of parents involved in this study, not a single parent reported that they learned of their child’s exposure to pornography because they asked them directly.
The topic of pornography needs to be directly addressed by parents in order to shield their children from its harms. Eighty-six percent of the parents in this study reported their young child was exposed to pornography online or on the television. Both of these devices are frequently used by children, leaving plenty of opportunities for the average child to come in contact with pornography.
Discussing pornography with children can be stressful, as many parents from the 2017 study reported feeling “paralyzed, unsure what to say, afraid of the impact on their child, or nervous about how to respond.”
With these resources, parents can protect their children by creating open communication and educating their children about the harms of pornography use.