Tips on what to do if your child discovers porn

28 May 2017 - 02:00 By CLAIRE KEETON
It is increasingly common for young kids to be exposed to sexual content online.
It is increasingly common for young kids to be exposed to sexual content online.
Image: iStock

By the age of nine Harry* was addicted to porn. When he was seven, he had stumbled across it on his elder brother's iPad while looking for the game Angry Birds.

He is an exception. Most children will never be compulsive about porn, but it is increasingly common for young kids to be exposed to sexual content online, say psychologists, sexologists, researchers and parents.

As soon as they are old enough to swipe a screen or click a link, children are at risk of such exposure, even when they do not have their own phones or tablets.

Clinical psychologist Nolita Mtati said: "Primary school children are exposed to adult content at an alarming rate due to access to the virtual world. According to research, young children [ spend] on average eight hours per day on technology."

Anxious, confused and excited about what they have seen, some kids go quiet instead of turning to their parents.

Take Harry, the youngest patient Gauteng addiction expert Sorika de Swardt has treated.

"He landed on the pornography site as he pushed the back button on his brother's Google history, to try to retrieve the application store where he could download more games.

"What he saw left him shocked, curious and every time after that he went back to the porn but he hid what he was doing," she said.

His compulsion came out only when he started to masturbate.

"He couldn't even spell pornography, but he learnt from other boys how to google 'jiggly bits'," said De Swardt. He got into an addictive cycle of feeling bad, getting a fix from watching porn, then being ashamed and turning to porn to soothe himself.

The child had been traumatised as well as aroused by his experiences, and once asked her: "Can I ever take the pictures out of my mind?"

De Swardt treats porn addiction among boys and she is concerned that online exposure could lead to addictive behaviour as they grow up.

Miranda Jordan-Friedman, the director of Women and Men Against Child Abuse, said very young children could suffer anxiety and depression after viewing porn and might have disturbed relationships with their peers.

In severe cases, they might start to normalise hypersexualised interactions and violence against girls.

Children did not have the cognitive maturity to understand that porn is acting, or to grasp issues like sexual consent, the therapists said.

Sexual health and justice advocate Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng said: "Children do not fully understand that porn is a production, and are unable to filter real-life expectations from the clips.

"The first sexual exposure of a lot of young people was from watching porn and that's why some children are becoming hypersexualised."

Johannesburg psychologist and parenting expert Judith Ancer said it was impossible to wish away porn; it was parents' responsibility to help their children deal with it.

Shaming children and teens was counterproductive. The shock and condemnation of adults could do unintended and lingering harm.

When one mother found out her daughter of about 12 had viewed porn on a play date at a friend's, she complained to the school about the friend.

Sex therapist Dr Marlene Wasserman, of Cape Town, said: "The word got out at the school and the girl was mocked and harassed. It got so bad that she was traumatised and had to leave the school."

Rather than driving this problem underground, parents should talk to their children about it and monitor their online behaviour, said Ancer.

"You wouldn't take your child to mall and leave them unsupervised for hours so why would you leave them in cyberspace unsupervised for hours?"

Catriona Macleod, professor of psychology at Rhodes University, said children should be taught to look at porn in a critical way.

Her research has found that sex education in schools tended to portray the danger and disease rather than the complex, positive and false elements of sexuality.

Wasserman urged schools to include the topic of porn in their sex education and invite external speakers in if needed.

"We want to protect our children and the way to minimise risk is by educating them, not by shutting down the channels they see. You want to teach children before they find porn."

What parents can do...

• Wait as long as possible before you give your child a smartphone with an internet connection. Early primary school is too soon;

• Personal computers with an internet connection should be in the home's shared spaces - preferably an open area where other family members walk past regularly;

• Use filters and monitors such as ShieldMyTeen, Net Nanny or K9, which block most pornography and violence;

• Talk to your child about sexting, cyberbullying and safety on social media and dating sites;

• Check your child's phone in their presence. If you have the right to meet their friends in real life, you have the right to meet their online friends and to make sure they are who they say they are; and

• Have a discussion with your teen about the reasons pornography is not good for them.

Source: Sorika de Swardt, an addiction consultant and social worker in private practice.

*Not his real name

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