Having the porn talk with kids really works, study proves

Talking to children about pornography may not just help them dislike it, it may also insulate them against lowered self-esteem if a future romantic partner chooses to view it, according to a recent study.

The study, by researchers at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, found that children of parents who regularly talked about how they don’t like pornography because of the messages it contains and how it negatively affects individuals and society expressed more negative attitudes about pornography as college students. Those negative attitudes then translated into less pornography use, said author Eric Rasmussen, an assistant professor in the College of Media & Communication.

“When parents are saying ‘This has negative effects,’ kids are internalizing that,” he said. “Those conversations in middle school and high school actually persist into emerging adulthood … when kids are off on their own.”

While numerous studies show active parental mediation, such as talking and explaining things, is one of the most effective ways to reduce negative media effects on children, this is one of the first studies to look specifically at active parental mediation and attitudes about pornography, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Children and Media.

“There’s so much to be studied here,” Rasmussen said. “This … gives us hope that research shows parents should talk to their kids about pornography.”

Stronger self-esteem

Researchers asked more than 300 college students about conversations they remember having with their parents as adolescents regarding pornography, times they had been caught viewing pornography, current pornography use for themselves as well as their sexual partner, plus questions on self-esteem and attitudes about pornography.

Both girls and boys who were caught looking at porn got more anti-porn talks from their parents, and in addition to developing more negative views of pornography were less likely to report lowered self-esteem when they knew their romantic partner was viewing pornography.

“Talking to adolescents about the negative effects of pornography appears to build the resilience of emerging adults when they become involved in a relationship with somebody whose actions could otherwise damage their self-esteem,” according to the study.

Such a finding is interesting, says Rasmussen, because numerous studies have pointed out the damaging and traumatic effects, particularly for women, of a partner’s pornography habits.

Rasmussen said they don’t know whether their resiliency finding is tied specifically to conversations about pornography or if it’s simply an indicator of healthy parent/child communication and parenting styles, which have also been shown to increase self-esteem among adolescents.

“It makes sense, because adolescents who are in an open communication environment with their parents, whose parents are talking to them about the hard topics … tend to have stronger self-esteem and be higher critical thinkers and be … more aware of the media’s role in their life,” said Stacey Hust, an associate professor of communication at Washington State University and associate director of the Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion Research who wasn’t involved with the study. “That finding … wasn’t surprising … but it’s a fairly novel thing for a study to do, (and) I hope that it sparks other researchers to examine that.”

Talking matters

Having conversations about important topics is a good way to convey a sense of trust and confidence in a child and support their autonomy, explained Michelle Givertz, an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Chico.

Autonomy-supportive parents not only talk to their children about choices and consequences, but they let their children choose so they learn what it takes to choose wisely.

Helicopter parents, or those who shield their children from consequences, may not only prevent experiential learning, but they may also avoid talking about important topics like drugs, bullying, sex or pornography because they “don’t think the child can handle it,” Givertz said.

“So I would think that extrapolating from that back to pornography, it’s about teaching kids from a very early age and not being afraid of issues,” said Givertz, who was not involved with the study. “It’s about open communication, age-appropriate communication little-by-little … as things come up.”

Parents can even use media, positive or negative, to spark conversations about real life, says Hust.

Whether it’s a commercial, movie or music video, parents can ask their children questions about an individual or character’s behavior, dress or attitude, and whether those expressions align with or stray from family values — conversations that should begin “as soon as you’re willing to let a child use media,” Hust said.

However, despite a body of research with encouraging findings, there are several reasons why parents may not be having these conversations.

The first may be that they’re simply unaware of the extent and nature of what their children are watching, Hust said. Other parents are uncomfortable about certain topics and feel they lack the conversational tools, while others may simply be too tired and figure their teens won’t listen anyway — a finding that this study helps refute, says Hust.

She encouraged parents to become aware of their children’s media use, as well as consider their own feelings for certain media and then express those thoughts to their kids in the course of everyday life.”Our kids are going to learn about sex and pornography from the media, whether their parents are involved or not,” Rasmussen said. “So if parents have any ounce of concern about how their kids approach media and pornography, this research shows that parents’ influence can be stronger than the media influence. Parents are in the best position to influence their kids’ media habits.”

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