Since the earliest days of the internet, there’ve been conversations about what, exactly, kids are being exposed to when they go online—and what might be done to better protect them from websites they’re not ready to see. The cover story for the July 1995 issue of Time Magazine warned of the dangers of “cyberporn.” Though some of the most shocking claims within the piece (like the assertion that 83.5 percent of images stored in Usenet groups were both pornographic and easily accessible to children) were quickly debunked, it still helped set the tone of the conversation about kids and the internet for the years to come.
Over the past few decades, a number of strategies have been floated for keeping kids away from porn. In the late 1990s, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act, both of which were later found to violate the First Amendment. Filtering software—from Net Nanny to built-in content blockers in iOS—are frequently recommended as micro-level solutions. The porn industry has worked to aid those efforts by voluntarily adopting the Restricted to Adults (RTA) labeling system. And governments around the world are currently considering or actively enforcing age verification systems that require adult sites to secure identifying information from all visitors before giving them access to pornographic content.
Debates around the pros and cons of these various solutions get into what freedom and privacy we’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of keeping kids from seeing adult content—as well as considering whether these censorship laws and filtering programs actually accomplish the things they promise. But one thing that never seems to come up, is this: Let’s say the filters work, the age verification platforms work, and kids are 100 percent prevented from seeing any adult content until the day they turn 18. What then? Does censorship alone ensure that kids will grow up to be sexually healthy adults?
Not really. If we want kids to grow up with healthy ideas about sex, we actually need to offer them more than just censorship. And when they are equipped with healthy messages about sex, they’ll be resilient even when censorship inevitably fails to protect them from all possible adult content.
“A big thing that I hear from parents with concern about pornography is the way that it presents gender roles,” says Heather Corinna, founder and director of the youth sex education site Scarleteen. “OK, let’s think about it: What kind of education and support have you already given your young person about gender roles? Have you already done a really good job of educating them on the bullshit of sexism?” If you’ve already educated your kids about how to respect people’s bodies and autonomy, then that message is going to carry over into sex—and it won’t be magically erased just because they stumble onto a porn flick that features a sexist story line.
“But some parents won’t have done that at all,” acknowledges Corinna. So here are few tips on how to start.
Start the conversation early. Many people assume that kids don’t need to start learning about sex until they’re about to hit puberty—or, potentially, even later. But experts recommend starting much, much earlier than that. “I taught preschool. I can’t imagine not talking to toddlers about their body parts, about where to put their hands,” says Corinna. As soon as kids are old enough to learn about concepts like body parts and personal space, they’re old enough to be having the conversations that will form the building blocks of their life-long sex education.
That doesn’t mean that you should talk to your five-year-old about condoms and birth control, however. Basic sex education starts with, well, the very very basics. Over at the sex education site Amaze, there’s an entire section, Amaze Jr., that offers resources for talking about sex with kindergarteners and grade schoolers—including a whole collection of videos that are specially designed to guide parents through the process of talking to kids about sex.
But also know it’s never too late. These days, Jeselin Marizan, 16, is a youth ambassador for Amaze, and she’s passionate about the importance of giving kids access to honest, accurate information about sex. Yet she didn’t grow up having those talks herself. The daughter of a teen mom, she was mostly raised to see sex as something to be avoided. “I was always kind of scared to bring it up,” she admits.
But after Covid hit, Jeselin began volunteering with a number of health education orgs—and sex education became a part of her life. She started to casually bring topics like birth control up with her mom and was thrilled to find it was something they could talk about together. Though she wishes they’d started having these conversations much, much earlier, she’s grateful that the door is open now.
Keep the conversation going. “Some parents consider ‘the talk’ just to be a one-time thing. But conversations around sex, sexuality, love, and relationships should be an ongoing conversation,” says LeKara Simmons, Amaze program manager and strategic brand smbassador. The more you normalize discussions about sex and bodies, the more you build trust with your kid—and the more likely it is that they’ll turn to you, and not a peer or a potentially sketchy website, when they have questions about sex in the future.
But talking regularly about sex doesn’t mean you have to keep rehashing the same talking points about where babies come from or how to use condoms over and over again. Sex is about more than just the mechanics. Learning about sexism, respect for other people’s bodily autonomy, and media literacy is just as important as making sure that they know how a sperm and an egg create a baby.
Find good resources online (and off)—and make sure your kids know about them. No matter how great a job you do at talking to your kids about sex, there are always going to be conversations they don’t want to have with you. So make sure they know they have other places to turn to. That could be another trusted adult—an aunt, an uncle, a family friend—or it could be one of the many fantastic sex ed resources that exist online and off.
Websites like Amaze, Scarleteen, Sex, Etc, and Planned Parenthood and books like Let’s Talk About It!, Sex is a Funny Word, Wait, What?, and S.E.X.: The Scarleteen Book! are all great resources for kids who are curious about sex. Make sure your kids know about them.
Recognize that it’s OK to not know everything (and use this as a chance to improve your own sex education). One of the biggest things that stops many parents from starting the sex convo with their kids? A fear of awkwardness—especially if they don’t feel like experts themselves.
But awkwardness doesn’t have to be a barrier, says Corinna. “All you have to say to your kid is ‘I feel awkward.’” Showing your vulnerability gives your kid a chance to get to know you in a totally different way—while also helping model how to handle some of the awkward conversations they, themselves, will one day have when they start exploring intimacy with other people.
And don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know everything. It’s far better to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question, but are happy to look it up, than to stonewall your kid or make them feel ashamed for asking. Additionally, acknowledging that you don’t know everything can be a great bonding experience. “Maybe in 2023 you barely know more than your 15-year-old knows,” says Corinna. “So? How nice for you to be on almost equal ground for a change.”
Jeselin definitely agrees. When she first started talking about sex with her mom, “she would start laughing with me, or asking me questions, which I found very helpful because it proved to me that she genuinely cared.” Maybe her mom didn’t know all the answers to her questions, but just having the space to talk helped bring them closer together.