One Sunday evening Nicky Smith began running a bath for her kids at their grandma’s house before the drive home. Her nine-year-old son, Sam, was still playing a game on a laptop in the spare room as his younger siblings started splashing in the water. When Nicky shouted for Sam to turn off the computer for the last time, he came running into the bathroom.
Nicky, 43, a teacher, recalls: “His cheeks were flushed and he had a funny, glassy-eyed expression on his face. He avoided my eye as he undressed and looked flustered., I just knew something was up.”
Going back into the room, Nicky flipped open the laptop and scrolled down the search history. There she found a long list of web addresses, all revealing some kind of pornographic content in the title.
She recalls: “I was horrified. We’d been talking about putting some blocks on at home, but I assumed we still had time. I was upset and angry, like porn had got to my son before I could do anything about it.” Rather than shutting the door on the issue, Nicky steeled herself and began an ongoing, at times “tricky” conversation with her son about pornography.
Twenty years ago, Nicky’s son might have been 13 or 14 when he first came across porn. Now the average age to view it is 11 (for some children much younger) and, as I’ve previously explored, has become the go-to education tool for the majority of teenagers to learn about sex: Porn, a bad education - making hate, not love in the digital age.. Apart from its sheer accessibility, porn is harder now and more degrading to women, commonly displaying the kind of action only previously seen in hardcore films: throttling, choking, rough anal and oral sex, women crying out or looking in pain.
Teaching children about healthy attitudes to sex seems more of an urgency now than ever. There is growing momentum for change as two private members’ bills calling for mandatory Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) make their way through parliament, although the second hearing of MP Caroline Lucas’ bill is now postponed until February 2015.
But as every week goes by and more children and teenagers continue to absorb messages about sex through internet porn, advertising, music videos and social media, the opportunity for adults to fill in the gap with effective advice and information is being jeopardised.
Parental fears of what to say and how much
Parents I interviewed for this feature feel anxious and to a degree helpless as cyberspace encroaches on family space and autonomy. There is a sense that porn is catching them unaware, their kids either accessing it deliberately or accidentally in pop-ups - often well before they’re ready to start discussing sex with their children. As one father, John, 38, told me: “I found myself trying to explain what a porn pop-up was when he was still asking where babies come from. He was only seven. It was very difficult, I mean, porn’s weird for adults too.”
Another mother Sally, 42, told me about her eight-year-old daughter: “She put ‘bottoms’ into Google images at her friend’s house. It was only when she made a comment about ‘massive willies’ at bath-time that I started asking her about it. I was worried about her not wanting to talk to me, so I remained weirdly calm.”
But how do we begin to talk about pornography to our young kids in an appropriate way? Should we wait until they stumble across it? Or should we pre-empt it? Some parents fear that even discussing it will pique children’s interest.
As Carla, 47, says: “There’s a worry that your best intentions could cause damage. And an element of ‘mummy’s telling me not to do it so I will do it and I’m not going to tell her’.”
Most parents agree it’s a supremely uncomfortable subject, leaving them stuck between a need to inform but also maintain their child’s innocence. Carla says: “It exposes you as a parent. It’s natural to feel a bit embarrassed about sex. Your instinct is to put a ban on everything but you can’t.”
Failing to inform? The vacuum that porn fills
If some children first come across porn at 11 or younger and then most schools and parents aren’t addressing it until Key Stage 4 when the child is 15 or 16, what’s happening in the interim? That’s a period of four or five years where children are trying to navigate a path through the confusions of new sexual feelings and the digital world.
Despite parental awkwardness, some practitioners believe we have a duty to address the issue openly, that we should be tracking our children’s online habits as soon as they access devices and developing critical awareness when they’ll still young enough to listen.
Miranda Horvath, 33, is Associate Professor in Forensic Psychology at Middlesex University. She also co-produced a report last year for the Children’s Commissioner of England called Basically Porn Is Everywhere, looking at its negative effects on young people.
Horvath believes there’s a “vacuum’”of good sex education where children aren’t given the space by adults to ask questions and have conversations about what they’ve seen.
“Our report suggests that children and young people who don’t have the opportunity to discuss porn or engage with it critically turn to it as a form of ‘facts giving’. Any understanding that porn is fantasy, not reality, is lost.”
A firm advocate of mandatory SRE, she suggests parents should ask their schools and MPs why sex education is still discretionary. Another of Horvath’s suggestions for protecting children is developing critical awareness of the media in them from a young age at home.
She says: “We live in a world that is saturated with [images of] women as sex objects especially in film and advertising, which borrow ideas from porn anyway. If young children are always thinking critically about what they’re seeing it will give them the tools to deal with the more shocking and horrific stuff that comes along.”
Horvath admits there’s no one “silver bullet” for parents, with no definitive “research evidence” of exactly what to say to children at what age. But she has a few suggestions for starting a positive dialogue with children:
- Assess your child. If they’re not exposed there’s an argument for going very gently and slowly. No one is suggesting sitting five-year-olds down and telling them what anal sex is.
- You can start by saying some things are good on the web, some are bad, some are true and some aren’t.
- Stay calm (even if you want to scream and shout) – don’t reinforce that the child has done something wrong.
- Don’t just talk about it once, but return to the subject periodically as the child grows.
- Have a wider discussion about respect for other people and equality. That’s what underlies the problem with porn, it’s not respectful and isn’t a world where women and men are equal.
- A lot of porn is about fantasy, not reality. If children understand that, they may well be able to cope better than if parents shut the subject down.
What some parents say
Some of the best anecdotal advice has come from parents I interviewed whose children had accessed porn out of curiosity. Carla found her eight-year-old daughter looking at it after a schoolfriend worked out how to get round blocks.
She says: “They’d heard stuff about lesbians, typed it in and just got all this porn up. Even though my daughter was horrified about it, she wanted to watch more. She told me, ‘Mummy, I didn’t think it was like this, this is scary’.”
“That gave me a way in to say, look this isn’t love, it’s a whole different way of using the body. It’s sex without emotion, nothing to do with being in love or love-making. Certain things might seem to be the same but it’s acting and it’s not real. People are making money out of it, not necessarily the people acting in it.”
She thinks a regular open dialogue with your child is key. “If they’re old enough to be online, they’re old enough to have a conversation with you. But it depends on the child. It can’t be a catch all. Talk to your kids endlessly about the dangers. In a bizarre way, I’m not exactly glad it happened, but I don’t know when I would have sat down and had that conversation with her.”
Parents need to take more control at home and not be cowed by their kids’ digital demands. Carla says: “Ultimately it’s parents’ responsibility, but most are in denial about it. Kids are going to be online at home or with their friends - not at school. You do wonder why some people don’t seem to know what their kids are watching.”
The demand for better sex education grows
Many parents seem to have the attitude of “well, let’s leave it up to the school to do it”, but don’t realise that SRE is non-mandatory and often given a lower priority with strained budgets and other curriculum demands. The national picture is patchy and ad hoc, depending on where you live and your school’s approach. Last year Ofsted published a report called PSHE – not yet good enough, which claimed more than a third of primaries had inadequate SRE.
Discussion of puberty has only been a National Curriculum recommendation since September and only in science classes at Year 5 (9-10-year-olds). Some children are hitting puberty earlier at age eight; clearly, the government’s guidance (published in 2000) could do with an overhaul, especially since more than a quarter of young people (27%) said their SRE was “bad” or “very bad” in 2013.
A new survey by the Sex Education Forum reports that most parents want important aspects of SRE taught in primary schools. And last year the National Association of Head Teachers NAHT found that 42% of parents thought that children as young as five needed guidance on issues like pornography.
Lucy Emmerson, coordinator at the Sex Education Forum, says: “We believe it’s every child’s right to have SRE, it should be something that children get a little bit of every year in building blocks, so that they’re preparing for puberty.”
She admits the general picture is “still hit and miss”, with some children still only getting one hour at the end of Year 6. “The key thing is, we’re not recommending telling children how to have sex, or probably using the word sex, but what we’re doing is helping them to start talking about their bodies, boundaries between them and other people, relationships and how we operate within families.”’
Emmerson believes embarrassment from adults often hampers open-minded discussion. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with naming a penis or vagina with little children, they’re just parts of the body like all the rest.”’
How it could be done
One woman who’s not afraid of being frank with primary schoolers is Lynnette Smith who runs Big Talk Education, which delivers programmes of sex education to around 7,000 children every year in North Lincolnshire.
Her 12-strong team uses illustrated cards for discussion with children from the age of four up to 11 in Year 6. The cards can be adapted for age-appropriate discussions involving everything from parts of the body, “good and bad” touching to taking pictures of naked people without their permission and “programmes for grownups” – ie porn films. Lynnette says the word “pornography” is never directly used.
She encourages a whole school approach, where staff sit in on briefings and parents are invited to come in and discuss their concerns before her team goes into the classroom. “Some parents hit the roof when we first send the letter out. But when we actually explain to them how we do it, they calm down.”
Smith, 57, sees how difficult parents and teachers find opening up about sex, still a taboo discussion area with youngsters. “A lot of these parents have had bad sex education themselves so they don’t know what to say. Also some primary school teachers are uncomfortable teaching it because they don’t know how to answer the questions.”
But she maintains children need age-appropriate SRE as soon as they start school. If it’s left until the end of Year 6 it’s “too late, they’ve all told each other by then and they’re too giggly and don’t take it in”. More detail works well from Year 4 (8-9 years) as “the children think it’s wonderful, they love the stages of pregnancy” and “aren’t bothered” by the intercourse bit; “It’s the adults who get worried about that.”
Smith, a trained teacher with a background in youth work, says she noticed a distinct change in attitudes from 2002 as many homes first got the internet and “people started googling porn”. At secondary schools, she’s witnessed a change in “boys’ expectations of girls. We’ve seen a rise in girls starting to shave their pubic hair, an assumption that oral and anal sex are mainstream and girls expecting that sex is something that men or boys do to them. We try and say, hang on, sex is supposed to be good for you as well!”
In primary Years 5 and 6 (9-11 year-olds) Lynnette’s team have an “Ask-it Basket” where children post anonymous questions, but what has shocked her in recent years is that younger children ask the same type of questions as 14 and 15-year-olds.
She admits: “We always get questions about rape, ‘why do people watch porn?’ and ‘anal sex’ (they call it ‘bum sex’) and ‘why do people make so much noise when they have sex?’” The team take it in their stride, though, preparing answers for challenging questions about oral sex, anal sex and rape - suitable for telling children as young as seven if they ask. She believes that proactive, not reactive education is the only way forward.
She says: “The question is, are we basing what we do on children and young peoples’ needs or the comfort zones of decision-makers? British kids are being failed at the moment – it’s criminal.”
Lynette’s tips from age four up on safeguarding and sex:
- From the beginning always refer to parts of the body with the correct terms (information is power, plus paedophiles will avoid an educated child).
- Ensure they are aware of the four parts of their body no one should touch unless they want them to: genital area (penis, vagina), bottom (anus) chest and mouth.
- Before your child goes on the internet, explain that as well as interesting topics, there are things that may come up that aren’t nice, e.g. people with no clothes on or people hurting each other. If this happens tell a responsible adult straight away.
- Start early by answering your child’s questions about bodies, babies etc as they arise. If you’re not feeling too confident, choose a book from the library.
- Let your child know what you think and believe, have an awareness of your values especially in your relationships and the way we treat others.
- Tell them they can always come and talk to you or ask you things that they’ve seen/heard and don’t understand - don’t assume they know this!
- Keep the channels of communication going, make time to talk about internet activity, their favourite sites etc.
- Ask what is covered in school, it may be more (or far less) than you think. Most schools play safe and under-deliver, often fearful of a parent backlash.
- If the school is wary of delivering sensitive topics, suggest they contact a specialist to start the ball rolling.
For many parents, dealing with the fact that their children have watched porn prematurely is an uncomfortable one. But as the debate on mandatory SRE rages on in LEAs, parliament, school meeting rooms and charities across the UK, children continue to access violent and degrading pornography at the click of a mouse.
Lucy Emmerson says: “Parents, schools and teachers have to ask themselves, who do I want our children to get information from? Do I want them first to find it via pornography, or through their friends? Or do I want them to get information from me or a trained health professional in school? We’re lagging behind other countries, I don’t know what the excuse is not to act.”
Online safety tips from the NSPCC.