Special Report: Growing up safe amidst the powerful allure of porn

In the wake of Ana Kriégel’s murder trial, Joyce Fegan asks if viewing porn is harming our children, if it’s possible to curb it, and how to prepare them for this aspect of adult life.

Special Report: Growing up safe amidst the powerful allure of porn

In the wake of Ana Kriégel’s murder trial, Joyce Fegan asks if viewing porn is harming our children, if it’s possible to curb it, and how to prepare them for this aspect of adult life.

A national conversation erupted around porn in the wake of the Ana Kriégel murder trial.

In May 2018, 14-year-old Ana was sexually assaulted and murdered in an abandoned house in Lucan, Co Dublin. Two 13-year-olds boys, known only as Boy A and Boy B, were this year convicted of her murder, with Boy A also convicted of sexually assaulting her.

The boys were sentenced on November 5. During the course of the trial, Boy A’s use of porn featured heavily.

An examination of two phones found in his bedroom revealed almost 12,500 images, the vast majority of which were pornographic, with many depicting scenes of sexual violence.

From politicians to parents, and from psychological experts to academic researchers, the issue of children and teenagerseasily being able to access free and cheap porn on their smartphones was pushedto the front of the national conversation.

Some of the questions being discussed included: Is my child watching porn, and how often? How do I talk to my child about pornography or sex in general? Is banning, restricting, or monitoring their smartphone the answer?

But most importantly,parents wanted to know if watching porn would lead to sexually violent behaviour and, in general, what impact porn use is having on the minds of our young people.

To answer these questions, the Irish Examiner has spoken to teenagers about porn use among their generation; a mother who talks openly to her teens about porn; a child and adolescent psychotherapist, and an academic who has researched the link between porn use and sexually aggressive behaviour in teenagers.

Understanding the teenage brain, as a parent

Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and attachment specialist working with children and adolescents. She looks at the issues of porn and phone use from several converging points of view.

Firstly, teenagers are “wired” to take risks, and to seek out independence and privacy. Secondly, parents are still parents, so there can still be rules and boundaries around things such as phone use. Lastly, the brain is developing up until we are in our mid-20s and therefore, watching porn in lieu of best-practice sex education can “warp” views around intimacy and sexuality.

“Most parents never imagined they would have to talk about porn with their children but, owing to increasingly premature exposure to an online world, this is now a necessary part of the parent-child narrative,” says Ms Fortune.

“We really need to change how we speak about sex and how we devise and deliver sex education in our schools — and porn must be a part of those conversations.”

The psychotherapist believes it is essential to “frame this national conversation” in the context of the developing teenage brain.

“Our children are watching it [porn] and seeking sex education from it, and it is warping their views of sex, intimacy, sexuality, and relationships,” says Ms Fortune. “I hear about this in my work with teenagers and at times younger children, many of whom have accidentally accessed porn via a pop-up that appeared on screen while watching something else entirely online.”

Explaining how the brain is changes in adolescence, Ms Fortune states that it develops “very quickly” in the teen years. One of the most prominent developments in the brain at this time is the “reward drive, thrill-seeking, impulsive part of the brain”. This is the part that says: “Do it, do it, do it.” It is this area that is developing quickly in adolescent and the part that takes right up until the mid-20s to develop.

Ms Fortune emphasises this point because “teenagers are neurologically wired to take risk”.

“What we want, as their parents and educators, is that the risks that they take are healthy risks rather than unhealthy and potentially damaging risks,” she says.

Aside from the developing brain, the teenage years is when parents feel their children “moving away from them”. This is a natural and normal progression, but the key is to keep an open lineof communication with your child, says Ms Fortune.

“Further, teenagers are really moving away from their parents/family as their greatest influencers towards their peers,” she says. “Developmentally, teenagers seek more privacy, so they tell their parents less and less.

They are in a period of estrangement whereby they seek to experiment with new tastes, friends, interests, and styles in order to establish they are very different to their parents.

"It is an age whereby the teenagers feels they have left the age of command [‘do as you are told’] and have entered an age of consent [‘let’s negotiate and discuss it’].”

None of this is a problem, emphasises the psychotherapist — but they are changes that can make the “parent-teen relationship very challenging,” says Ms Fortune.

However, she reassures parents that “it is OK to have ground rules about usage, and boundaries about time limits of usage” when it comes to things like phone use.

Ultimately though, it is about “keeping the door of communication commutation open” during these challenging parent-teen years.

“I would encourage parents of teenagers to be interested in what interests your teen,” says Ms Fortune.

“This should not be confused with being intrusive — this is about keeping the door of communication open, even ajar, in these testing times, avoiding literal and figurative door slammers that bring disconnection into the parent-teen relationship.”

Joanna Fortune is the author of 15-Minute Parenting: The Quick and Easy Way to Connect with your Child.

The sex-positive parent

Taryn de Vere is mother to five children, aged nine to 19. She consciously set out to be a “sex-positive parent”.

“I live with four of my five children in Donegal,” says Taryn. “My eldest is 19, so he’s in college, but he’d be here with me weekly. The rest are ages 9, 11, 14, and 17.

“I’ve always been a sex-positive parent. I define that as being the complete opposite of the shame- and fear-based education in Ireland.

“It’s just about normalising the human body, normalising that most people have sex because they enjoy it, not to procreate, you can enjoy your own body.”

At the core of her approach is a desire for her children to grow up without “any hang-ups”. She says that she starts conversations around the body early, and they progress as is appropriate with age. This is something Taryn did specifically with consent.

“With my 17-year-old, she’s maintained those boundaries she’s had from a young age now she’s a young adult,” explains Taryn.

Before speaking directly about porn with her teens, Taryn will broach the subject of the internet first.

“When my children are first about to go on the internet, I have a conversation with them. I’ll say: ‘When you’re online you might see something thatis upsetting or distressing — please come and talk to me and we can discuss it and if you feel weird inside and we can deal with it.’

“I don’t just say it once, I keep saying it in different ways as they grown up, and they have for the most part come and talked to me.”

Specifics aside, she has occasions to talk about porn with her children.

“One child of mine saw a pornographic pop-up in a friend’s house and they told me about it,” says Taryn. “I explained that the people involved were acting, that it was not real life. I explained it was essentially a movie. I asked: ‘Was the woman being hurt?’ It’s a similar conversation to in a movie when you see someone being hurt, and you talk about it to your child. You explain that it is not reflective of what actual sex is like.”

However, when it comes to conversations about why adults have sex, it is about mutual pleasure and consent.

“I explain that most adults have sex because it feels good and it’s pleasurable and fun, so when they see someone in pain it doesn’t fit with what they’ve grown up knowing — they know it’s a performance,” says Taryn.

Furthermore, she does not think that having ‘the talk’ just once is sufficient when helping your child navigate sexuality and intimacy.

I think the idea that you just sit your child down once, this idea that you have ‘the talk’, needs to go out the window — it’s a series of conversations from when your you’re child can talk. I’ve followed my child’s natural curiosity, they know no question is out of bounds for them.

“It’s about not shaming children for what’s natural and normal, but explaining to them about what the boundaries are for all of this.”

For Taryn, the “sex-positive” approach came from conversations being had around sex during her own childhood.

She also points out that she did not have a “religious-based” education.

When she became a parent herself, like with most topics, she researched best practice and tried to model it as best she could, taking “trial and error” into account, alongside the fact that each child is different.

For parents who are not where she is, she thinks“becoming a bit more comfortable with this area yourself” is a good starting point.

Taryn also believes it is never too late to start conversations around sexuality, intimacy, and consent with your child.

“Some people reading this might think ‘this is too late — my child is 10 and she started talking about this when her child was two’, but to that I would say: ‘Be honest.’ Honesty works with kids. Say: ‘I feel uncomfortable talking about this.’ Tell them you’re uncomfortable and why.”

When the issue of phone use and porn use or sexual violence bubbles up in society or the media and a sort of panic starts to spread, Taryn says she does not experience this.

“When things arise in society or in the media, I don’t panic, because I know my children have the skills to negotiate all of this,” she says.

“I have spent years and years teaching them all about this — they have the knowledge and awareness, and they can talk to me, and they can talk to me and won’t be shamed. There is no need for me to panic.

“My goal is to raise kids who are comfortable in their own bodies and who understand consent. I want them to be happy. It’s about looking down the line and putting in building blocks for when they’re an adult.”

Another key piece for Taryn is not “banning” things. She believes it’s more useful to help teenagers become “critical thinkers” who develop into “empathetic adults”.

She says: “Allow themselves to think about how much phone use is too much for them ... and where it’sappropriate for that child. You’re trying to build that self awareness up to where they say: ‘I think I’m on this too much.’

“Ask them: ‘How do you feel when you’ve been on a device for four hours?’ ”

Ultimately, it comes down to education, believes Taryn, and acknowledging that a naturally curious child will source information from somewhere.

“If you don’t talk to your kids about this stuff, they will get this information from somewhere else, and this could be from a really dangerous place,” she says.

“If you don’t talk to your kids about this, someone else will and it could be misinformation.”

Porn use is not necessarily linked to sexual violence

Kate Dawson led a 20-month research project looking at porn use and sexual aggression, which found that the two are not directly connected. She is a post-doctoral researcher on the Active Consent Programme at the School of Psychology, NUI Galway.

“In a 20-month study we did with 594 teenage boys, who were 15 when we started and 17 when we finished, we did not find that watching porn leads to sexual aggression,” says Dr Dawson.

“So just because a young person watches porn regularly doesn’t mean they’ll act out in a sexually aggressively manner Ms .

“People who are sexually aggressive are more likely to watch a lot of porn, but consuming pornography does not predict aggression.”

The boys were asked how much porn they had watched over the course of a three-month period, and the people who reported watching it at least once a week were more likely to have acted sexually aggressively. The people who reported no sexual aggression watched porn the least.

The research, entitled ‘Adolescent sexual aggressiveness and pornography use: A longitudinal assessment’, used data relating to 594 male Croatian high school students, recruited from 14 larger secondary schools in Rijeka, the third-largest city in Croatia.

In other research that Ms Dr Dawson has been involved in, she found that most boys in Ireland start watching pornbetween ages of 10 and 13.

“The data that we collected around the age of first exposure in Ireland showed that most boys in Ireland will start watching porn between the ages of 10 and 13 — that’s about 60% — and, overall, 99% had seen porn before they were 17,” she says.

Based on information available from the insights section of a popular porn website, most young people are watching it on their smartphones.

Dr Ms Dawson also gathered data around the various motivations for young people watching porn.

“The primary motivations for watching porn were to use it to masturbate,” she says.

Then 50% used it to learn about sex. One of the most common reasons for watching porn was to learn about sex, is to learn about how to do certain things.

“From my background in sex education, this is people wanting to know ‘how to perform oral sex,’ or, exactly the things not being covered in sex education. In sex education, we look primarily at safety and consent .

“Other people used porn to learn about their own sexuality — young LGBT+ people, for example. Others wanted to know what sexual body parts look like, what a vulva looks like, as they had no point of comparison.”

In a general sense, and from her own work in sex education, Dr Ms Dawson believes that porn is a “terrible educator”.

“Porn is a terrible educator in a lot of ways — it doesn’t teach about the most important aspects of sexual relationships — how to have healthy, happy, and consensual relationships,” she says.

“People are also watching it and they don’t know how long it takes to make a scene.

“It can take eight hours to make a 20-minute scene, the performers are acting, and you’re only seeing the edited bits as decided by a director. It’s not reflective of reality.”

When it comes to the ‘what to do about porn’ question, the researcher is not in favour of banning or restricting it.

“In general, restrictions and bans don’t work,” says Dr Dawson. “They’ve tried to restrict porn in loads of countries. In Israel, it’s completely banned but you can opt in and contact your internet provider.

“If you restrict or ban it, people will go looking for porn and might stumble upon the more dangerous sites.”

If we do not move towards banning porn, is there scope to regulate sites?

Dr Ms Dawson explains that, for the “big well-known sites”, it is easy to regulate it. People can input information to verify that they are over 18 years of age.

But it is the “problematic sites” that host “extremely dangerous and illegal content” that would be harder to regulate.

She argues that young people are tech-savvy, and that the important point is being able to discuss issues both with young people and with society in general.

“Our sex education for teenagers needs to talk about porn and explain that it is really important to understand this isn’t reflective of real relationships, these are paid actors,” she says. “You wouldn’t watch The Fast and the Furious to learn to drive, because you know what driving is really like — you get lifts, you see cars on the road.

“But it’s not like that with sexuality, and then porn can become our main source of reference for sex, because we’re not talking about it. We need to be talking about how to have healthy consensual relationships.”

What is absolutely essential is that we, as a society, destigmatise conversations around porn, which is distinctly different from normalising porn use.

“This is not about normalising porn use for children, but talking about it in a way that destigmatises conversations around porn, so we can protect children if they do see it,” says Dr Dawson.

All of the discussions should be age- and stage-appropriate — of course you would not discuss porn in detail with students in sixth class, but we know that many will, unfortunately, see it around this time, so they need to know that this is not what real relationships are like, and feel comfortable in seeking support from their parents if they see something that confuses or frightens them.

Similarly to child psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, Dr Ms Dawson argues that teen-parent conversations around porn can assist in successfully navigating this area.

She says: “Overall, we’ve learned that parents who had successful conversations with their children about pornography acknowledged that porn is out there and could say ‘what you’re seeing is not reflective of real relationships’ and ‘if you’re ever frightened by what you see you can come to me because this is very different to relationships people have’.

“They also explained that it’s normal to have curiosity about sex.” Ms

In terms of misogyny and sexism being caused by porn use in our young people, she says that the research is “conflicted”.

“For some people, porn can reinforce sexism but, in general, it’s about addressing misogyny at a societal level and looking at how we treat women and talk about women, in all areas of life. Porn is not the cause of misogyny,” says Dr Ms Dawson.

Teenage boys put porn on a pedestal: Eric, 18

Eric Ehigie is 18 years old and says porn is influencing his generation.

“Growing up in Ireland with wifi, smartphones, and freely available porn is quite interesting,” he says. “There are definitely benefits that come with technology and which society enjoys. However, porn being so accessible, due to the technological era that we’re in, may have a slight downside.

“Porn influences young people in ways that adults, and young people themselves, do not realise. Porn is indirectly involved in many conversations that we have, and things that we do as young people.”

Eric explains that young men will talk about porn and that such conversations are not necessarily “productive”. He also says he has never heard a girl talk about porn.

“From what I have noticed as a young man, males are prone to talk about watching porn,” says Eric.

“The conversations around porn, amongst males, certainly are not productive or educational in any way, but are instead, ones that place porn on a high pedestal, or joke about it. I have never seen or heard any female speak about porn.”

He believes that watching porn may be linked to increasing rates of “misogynistic acts”.

“I definitely think young people watch porn a lot,” says Eric. “The proof of this would be social media, the way young people intimately engage with one another on nights out, and the increasing rates of misogynistic acts being led by young men,acts that are aggrandised in pornos.”

Overall, he feels society has “overlooked” the impact that porn is having on his generation.

“It has placed an artificial attraction handbook, in the minds of both young men and women, which they feel will help them allure people from the opposite sex, due to how it’s done in pornographic videos,” says Eric.

Porn completely degrades sex, and brings it away from being a soulful engagement, to simply a session of pleasure — and young people view sex in this way due to porn.

When it comes down to what adults can do and how we can bring porn into sex education, the teenager argues that “scaremongering” is a useless tactic.

“I definitely think parents and adults need to act appropriately to educate the youth about the true effects of porn — mentally, physically, and socially,” says Eric. “Once young people are adequately educated, they will be in the position to make an informed decision about whether they want to watch porn or not.

“Scaremongering or aggressive warnings would, in this situation or any other one, inadvertently encourage the youth to watch porn, so this is a tactic that adults should definitely avoid.”

I have never talked to a friend about porn: Nadine, 19

Nadine Toye is 19, and has benefited greatly from access to the internet and a smartphone. In terms of porn, she believes that the topic is not a “one-size-fits-all” situation for her generation.

“For me, having access to smartphones and wifi was always a great thing,” says Nadine. “Mind you, where I live, the wifi is atrociously slow, and you would wait forever to get a YouTube video to load, but still, in comparison to my parents and even my older cousins, I had access to so much more things.

“In terms of pornographic content, I think that it’s something that teenagers have easy access to it if that’s what they want. In some ways, that can negatively affect young people and/or their views on sex.”

While her friends might regard her as “quite sheltered”, Nadine admits she has never been privy to a conversation about porn use amongst her peers.

“Although my friends would always regard me as someone who is quite sheltered, so I might not be the best reference for this, but I have never, that I recall, been in a conversation with a friend surrounding the topic of watching porn,” she says.

Overall, she does not believe that there is just one way or a certain amount when it comes to young people watching porn.

“I think that if a young person watches porn, or how much they watch, is very much a question that will vary from person to person,” she says.

“This topic is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Like most things, it is not something that you can put a number on, and it will fit to every teenager out there.”

Similarly to Eric, Nadine points out that the lack of proper sex education across our schools is causing a problem when it comes to the effect that porn use is having on younger minds.

“One impact that I think has definitely arisen arose from the readily available porn on the internet is how teenagers view sex,” says Nadine.

“This is also due to the lack of comprehensive RSE [relationships and sex education] in Irish schools. If teenagers are not taught the basics in sex education, it makes sense that they would turn to other sources for that information.”

Porn aside, the biggest concern for parents might be their teen sharing explicit images of themselves online.

“This is commonplace in today’s online world, and it is important to express the dangers of the online world when a child is first given access to it,” says Nadine.

All in all though, a teenager has to be trusted to make their own judgement of a situation.

Much like what researchers have discovered and what health professionals have encountered, banning phone use is not the answer — being open, and talking about sexuality is.

“I think that the teachers and parents need to understand that if a teenager wants to get access to the internet nowadays, then they’ll find some way to do it,” says Nadine.

“So instead of ignoring the issues of things like pornographic images, it is instead better to teach about being safe online and how not to get yourself into dangerous situations online.”

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