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How to talk to your kids about porn

SALT LAKE CITY — Late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows in Lauren's playroom, falling on a small table set for a tea party.

There are tiny porcelain plates, cups and a pitcher decorated with a teddy bear wearing a red jacket and green bow. A Mickey Mouse alarm clock sits on one end of the table; nearby, Barbies wait for an invitation outside their mansion.

Homemade art adorns the playroom walls and a shoebox near the closet serves as a shelf for the American Girl library.

Here in this haven of childhood, Paula knew her daughter would be safe.

It's been a year now, but the Salt Lake City mother still reels when she recalls the day she learned her daughter had been secretly watching hard-core pornographic videos in her playroom closet with friends after being introduced to the videos by another child.

"She's 8," Paula said. "She still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. You think you are doing every thing right and then you discover you've been invaded by an intrusive, outside, evil scummy force. It's so gut-wrenching. The sadness of an innocence lost. You only get one childhood."

Every day, thousands of children spend hours online via a computer, smartphone, tablet or gaming system, and in the past year, one in four have seen sexual material they didn't want to see, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center's “Trends in Unwanted Online Experiences and Sexting: Final Report.” What's more, 81 percent of the time, kids have seen those online images at home.

Not only can such exposure lead to confusion, questioning and future struggles for the child, but parents suffer too, often sinking into guilt that such a violation happened on their watch.

While pornography exposure is almost unavoidable in today's sex-saturated society, experts say the way parents respond to that exposure, educate themselves and establish patterns of communication is crucial to their child's — and their own — healthy recovery.

"The parents I work with who do really well see this topic and this issue as a real opportunity for connection and growth with their child," says Brannon Patrick, director of Lifestar Lehi and director of group development at Addo Recovery, both programs treating pornography addiction. "They're much closer to their children because of this issue and feel like they're on the same team. It really is an opportunity to practice some good parenting and some healthy attachment."

The discovery

Paula, who asked that her family be identified only by first names, still remembers the day of the phone call.

It was from another mother, who had finally gotten it out of her daughter that she had been watching sex videos at Lauren's house.

Paula brushed it off as impossible, but her husband Glen went to the playroom to talk with Lauren and confirmed their worst fears, then immediately password protected the iPad.

Weeks before, a friend two years older had been over and urged Lauren to search "sex" on YouTube. From there, the girls had accessed nearly unlimited graphic videos, many of them violent.

Eventually Paula got Lauren to show her what she searched, and the titles alone made her sick. Paula estimates Lauren watched about 30 videos before they found out.

"It's traumatic to the parent, it's real trauma," says Patrick. "The family that they thought they had, all of a sudden it can be changed instantly. It's really shameful for the parents as well, feeling like they're not enough, that they messed up in some terrible way. Parents need their own recovery. They need to heal from that trauma so that they can be there for their kids."

Pornography is a different issue than it was 30 years ago. No longer the "Playboy"-esque pinups from the '60s and '70s, today's pornography is increasingly violent and graphic, studies show. There are scenes of men hitting women, who respond neutrally or even with pleasure, fusing sexuality with violence and sending erroneous ideas about healthy sexuality and relationships.

When curious children seek out information about sex and stumble onto these types of displays, they begin to think the two are synonymous, which is patently and damagingly false, says Cordelia Anderson, author of "The Impact of Pornography on Children, Youth and Culture" and a long-time educator on how to promote well-being and prevent harmful behavior.

"The industries that make and profit from pornography want us to think it's just sex," she says. "The reality is, and studies show, the primary content is violence, degradation and body-punishing sex. It's a great concern to me that porn has become the main sex educator of our boys and girls."

Paula, who hadn't yet had an in-depth discussion with Lauren about sex, had to first acknowledge that her daughter wasn't seeing sex: This was pornography.

She sent an open letter to other parents in their tight-knit community detailing their experience, hoping it might prevent pain for other parents.

"This is an epidemic that people don't talk about," Paula said, "because it means 'I'm a bad mother.' It means 'We're dirty,' 'We're not good parents.' It's all those messages."

They've lost some friends, yet others have thanked them and said this issue wasn't even on their radar.

For both Paula and Anderson, this is not a religious or moral concern — it's a public health one.

"My work is to promote healthy sexual development, and I believe that pornography is a barrier ... to it," Anderson says. "If the child just saw it we can step back and say, 'These are teachable moments (and) we both need to learn about this.' If we are not countering (pornography), it's a type of sexual neglect."

Getting educated

Each time Patrick gives a presentation, worried parents confess they're afraid to talk about pornography with their child because they fear they might spark their curiosity.

"That drives me crazy," Patrick admits. "The reality is, all their kids are sexual beings and are going to be curious about sex ... so it's a lot better to get to kids before the porn industry gets to them."

It shouldn't be a one time, "let's-talk-in-the-car-so-you-can't-escape" event, but rather an ongoing discussion that emphasizes lifelong skills like openness and trust and eliminates shame.

Shame is one of the most damaging elements for a child struggling with pornography, Patrick says, because many children are confused by mixed messages.

Their parents may have told them that pornography is bad, but when they're exposed to it, they may like it. So they begin to believe they are bad.

"Just providing the (rule) but not having a discussion about it is actually shaming," Patrick says. "Just saying 'It's bad' is not just not enough, it's actually harmful."

However, starting a healthy, ongoing discussion can be difficult and embarrassing, given that many parents only had the stoic one-time talk when they were a child.

The book, "Good Pictures, Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today's Young Kids," is one attempt to make that conversation a little bit easier.

Kristen Jenson heard a poignant story from a friend about how her son had been exposed to pornography and then began molesting his siblings. When she looked for a book on how to discuss pornography with children and found nothing, she decided to write one.

"I just really want to help parents," said Jenson, who never planned to be an anti-porn advocate but is now deeply immersed in the cause. "(This book) explains in kid-friendly ways what (kids are) up against. I think it really builds trust when your parent says, 'You know, my job is to warn you, protect you from danger. And (pornography) is a danger that I'm going to warn you about, and you're going to be OK, because I'm going to teach you what to do.' That's a very hopeful, powerful message."

The book, aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds, walks children through the science of having a "thinking brain" and a "feeling brain," and why it's important to keep the "thinking brain" in charge and how pornography messes all that up.

Jenson and her co-author Gail Poyner explain what kids can do when pornography pops up and how parents can respond when that exposure happens. The book has only been out about four months and has already sold thousands of copies, proof to Jenson there is a hunger to know how to talk about this topic.

"(Pornography) is not going away," Jenson said. "The best thing we can do is get prepared and get educated ourselves and see it as a long-term ... part of our parenting plan."

Filters and monitors

While filters offer some peace of mind, experts say "the best technical control measures are those that work in tandem with educational strategies, parental involvement and approaches to better guide and mentor children to make wise choices. Thus, technical solutions can supplement, but can never supplant, the educational and mentoring role," according to the "2010 Youth Safety on a Living Internet" report.

With that in mind, here are a few technological control measures and additional information that might be helpful for families:

Connect Safely: tips and guidebooks that explain popular apps and social platforms for parents

Family Online Safety Institute: research, data and tips for parents about how to keep their families safe online

MetaCert: a safe, free browser designed to help prevent exposure pornography for kids as well as adults

K9 Web Protection: a free downloadable security system designed to protect against malware and questionable websites

Mobicip: a safe, free (though upgradeable) browser designed to prevent exposure to pornography

Email: sisraelsen@deseretnews.com