Talking with Students About Online Sexual Content

By Liz Bergren

Talking with Students About Online Sexual ContentWe all know that the rise of the internet has created amazing opportunities for us to access information within seconds. We understand that we have access to anything we want at our fingertips. We love this access, we use it . . . and we know that without monitoring its use, it can have serious consequences. We also understand that access to anything within seconds is the reality of our children’s lives, too, and that education around how to be safe online is crucial to their health.

When you type “internet safety” into Google, hundreds of Department of Education websites pop up with their policies. It is certainly clear that we know safety online is a need for our children and that it must be prioritized in schools. When I was a health education teacher, internet safety came up in discussions about hard topics including eating disorders, drug use, and sexual health. The internet is not a safe place for kids to learn about certain topics if they haven’t had direct instruction on how to evaluate online information.

Our hypersexualized culture has been a topic of conversation among parents, teachers, and administrators for years. TV shows, advertising—even some toys that our children play with—have been created to look sexual. Those of us involved with children are consistently concerned about what they are exposed to and how it may impact their decision-making and their sense of self. It has become our responsibility to help the children and teens we work with sift through the constant bombardment of sexual imagery.

One critical topic we have to face is kids’ exposure to explicit sexual content online. It is undeniable that tweens and teenagers, with their brains swimming in hormones, will likely seek out information as well as explore sexual imagery online despite our best efforts. According to a 2015 New York Times article, “Parenting in the Age of Online Pornography,” researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire have been conducting studies on children’s exposure to pornography since 2000. The researchers found that 42 percent of online users ages 10 to 17 had seen pornography and that 66 percent had seen it without seeking it out in ads on file-sharing sites. That same article reports that another study by the University of New Hampshire found that “93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls were exposed to online pornography during their adolescence.” So where and when is it appropriate to discuss internet pornography with our kids?

Over the years, I have had many discussions with other teachers in my position, and I found that education on exposure to sexually explicit imagery and its impact on one’s health was rarely incorporated into health lessons. After 15 years in the classroom, I also found that the level of sexual health education in the home varies significantly. I would often poll my students about how many of them had had discussions about sexual health with their parents or guardians, and the number of hands in the air was usually about 5 or 6 out of 30. That’s not a good sign.

We can’t ignore the fact that our children are curious and will explore what is at their fingertips. The health implications of overexposure to pornography are stated well in a 2016 article published by the American College of Pediatrics, “The Impact of Pornography on Children.” The article states that the negative effects of pornography can include mental disturbance, acting out, and violent behavior. It also can cause a false understanding of healthy sexual relationships, can increase insensitivity toward women, and can lead to a greater acceptance of promiscuity and violence in sexual behavior.

Many adults feel awkward having this conversation with children. For help, here are some tips on how to start discussions with your students on internet pornography:

  1. In a classroom setting, it is wise to build up to the conversation. Students need to feel safe and trust the facilitator, especially when the lesson or discussion is on a sensitive or controversial subject. If in a health class or a unit on media literacy, start with a lesson on how media influences our interests, what we eat, what we purchase, and how we feel about our bodies. Use examples of different types of media, and have students explore their own thoughts and feelings about what they see. At home, look for teachable moments, such as seeing sexual content or images in pop-ups online or while watching TV with your child.
  2. Students can explore how sexual imagery is used to sell products or how celebrities seem to hypersexualize themselves to sell their image or their music. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Maureen Palmer produced a 43-minute film titled Sext Up Kids: How Children Are Becoming Hypersexualized. This film, released in 2012 by Media Education Foundation, explores the concept of “porn culture” and how accelerated pressure to be sexy and sexual is changing kids’ behavior, attitudes, and overall sexual health. Maureen sits down with parents and educators who are struggling to help kids navigate our media-saturated cultural environment. For more information on this film, visit www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/sext-up-kids.
  3. In a classroom, you can segue into a discussion about internet pornography by polling your students on how many of them have stumbled across sexual content on the internet without intending to do so. More than likely, most of them will raise their hands. Pornographic content can pop up during internet searching regardless of the topic being studied. You can do the same thing at home with your child; ask them if they’ve ever seen anything that made them uncomfortable when searching online. Help them understand that, just like everything else we see in our media, some sexual behavior portrayed online is not normal or healthy to see or watch regularly.
  4. Older students can spend some time exploring research findings on how watching pornography can become an addiction, as well as any other health implications they can find and share with the class.
  5. Over the past five years, the New York Times has posted several articles on the influence of pornography on tweens and teens. A great resource on how to generate discussions with kids on this topic is a small series of stories in the New York Times, “How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography: Parents’ Stories and Expert Advice.” Teaching materials by American teachers or publishers that are appropriate for the classroom seem to be hard to find. But organizations in other countries seem to be producing helpful materials for teachers, such as MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy. As a teacher, it is important to research the effects of pornography on children so you can identify appropriate objectives and see where this topic can fit into state standards. Checking with administration and notifying parents prior to teaching about this subject is necessary in some schools as well.

In the New York Times article cited above, we read of a mother who went to her computer and found in her history that the term “child porn” had been searched recently. When she asked her tween-age son about it, he explained that he was trying to find sex that was appropriate for children to watch because he was curious. The bottom line is that this topic has to be discussed. It’s unfortunate that our kids are exposed to content that can negatively affect their health, but it is our reality and our responsibility to help them be healthy consumers of media. As educators or educational leaders, if you can take it upon yourself to integrate this type of education into your school or curriculum, you will be helping the students you work with make healthy decisions about sex. We would love to hear how you have integrated this topic into your curriculum or how your school handles topics like this. Feel free to share in the comments any stories or advice you have.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.


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