Expert advice for parents on dealing with children who have access to pornography

The digital era has transformed childhood, as children are given access to tablets, gaming consoles, phones, and laptops at increasingly younger ages. l PEXELS/HELENA LOPES

The digital era has transformed childhood, as children are given access to tablets, gaming consoles, phones, and laptops at increasingly younger ages. l PEXELS/HELENA LOPES

Published Nov 28, 2023


When modern day parents were in their adolescence, they experienced an entirely different world when it came to pornography.

Obtaining explicit content while underage during this time was challenging, with limited availability and strict regulations in place.

Even finding the occasional magazine hidden under a sibling's mattress was a rarity, and becoming a regular consumer of porn was a challenge in itself.

However, a recent episode of the “Sip the Tea” podcast shed light on a concerning reality.

During an episode, a teenage girl bravely shared her story of being addicted to pornography.

Starting at just nine-years-old, she explained on the podcast that she compulsively consumed explicit material for years.

This led to damaging effects on her self-esteem and body image, which were heightened by feelings of guilt and shame.

And while it is natural for children to be curious about the adult world, this curiosity could push boundaries set by parents.

It could also lead to an exploration of certain aspects of human life that may be disturbing, frightening, or shocking.

Responsible adults now have a universal duty to protect children from violence, cruelty, war, and sex.

In South Africa, exposing a child to pornography is not only morally wrong but also illegal.

The digital era has transformed childhoods, as children are given access to tablets, gaming consoles, phones, and laptops - all at increasingly younger ages.

Unfortunately, this also means granting youngsters access to an unregulated and limitless online world.

The abundance of violent and sexual content in the digital realm is staggering.

And with such widespread access to porn, it has become nearly impossible to limit children’s exposure - whether intentionally or unintentionally.

This reality calls for new approaches to sex education, increased openness in parent-child communication, and innovative strategies for parenting in the digital age.

UNICEF has expressed deep concern about the harmful effects of pornography on children.

They have highlighted the "massive quantity" of explicit material available and the ease in which children can access it.

This suggests that exposure to pornography at a young age may lead to poor mental health, sexism and objectification, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes.

Children might also come to view pornography, that portrays abusive and misogynistic acts, as behaviour that it normal and acceptable.

Counselling psychologist, Elliott Kotze, who works extensively with adolescents, presents another view.

“Currently, peer-reviewed evidence on the effects of exposure to porn in childhood is scarce,” he explained.

“There is also an argument that porn is not addictive which suggests that compulsive porn consumption is not about the media, but about underlying issues.”

He said that for instance, sexual shame is often inherent when it comes to compulsive porn consumption.

“Some argue that porn is not addictive, suggesting that compulsive consumption may be linked to underlying issues. For example, individuals with sexual shame may be more prone to compulsive porn consumption.”

Kotze added that another potential factor behind compulsive porn consumption, with or without masturbation, is the need for self-soothing or emotional and sensory regulation.

This can become problematic when it becomes the sole means of self-regulation.

However, he stressed that unintentional exposure to pornography during childhood can be traumatic.

And if a child stumbles upon explicit content or is shown it by a friend, they may experience a traumatic response.

“Without proper readiness or understanding, the shocking and disturbing nature of what they see may require support from parents or professionals to process,” said Kotze.

Meanwhile, Kotze believes that adolescents who experience distress often turn to porn, often on a compulsive level.

“To treat this, there needs to be an understanding of that distress,” he said.

“Adolescents face many challenges – mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression, relationship challenges or sexual or arousal challenges.”

He warned that simply taking away the child’s ability to access porn, without addressing the underlying issues that are driving the behaviour, will inevitably lead to a range of sexual and relationship challenges in the future.

Elliott offered the following advice to parents:

– Provide matter-of-fact and accurate sex education that is free of shame.

– It is important to discuss bodies using proper biological terminology without attaching shame or stigma to any body parts.

– Discuss the role of sex in reproduction and the role of sex in bonding and healthy pleasure.

– Focus on the care of our bodies and mental health.

– Talk about consent and what that looks like, how to give it and how to respect it.

– Give your children a vision and blueprint for healthy relationships.

– Be committed to non-judgment and be solutions-oriented.

– Be the wise guide your kids can come to when they need to talk about their distress.

He added that parents can help their children deal with compulsive behaviours and tackle the underlying causes.

“They can help them develop healthier ways for self-soothing and self-regulating without adding to the shame and guilt the child probably already feels in relation to their behaviour.”

In addition, he advised parents to adequately prepare your child.

“Open communication is essential to helping your child navigate adolescence.”

“Puberty comes along, and bodies develop. It’s a time full of body hair, smells, spontaneous arousal and breast buds.”

“All these changes can be disconcerting and distressing for children who have not been adequately prepared for it,” he said.

Kotze added that the science has shown that children who are under-prepared for puberty, or who have communication difficulties around this topic with their parents, are more likely to develop problematic or compulsive sexual behaviours.

“Let your children know that as they develop, shame is not necessary, and you can help them understand that we can take pleasure in our bodies in healthy ways.”