Despite my best efforts, my nine-year-old son saw online porn

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

​Stay-at-home mum, Mel*, was drawing with her seven year old in the living room when she discovered that her nine year old son, Felix*, had viewed pornography on his laptop. He had turned off the volume and turned the screen away from her.

Leaning over, she saw what looked like mud-wrestling. When she looked closer, it became apparent that her son was viewing pornography. "It was pretty hard-core, men-on-men stuff, nothing like the magazines under the bed we may have found in our day."

Mel felt a huge sense of guilt because she and her husband Matt*, had previously been diligent about setting viewing controls on devices. Being relatively tech-savvy and involved parents, they had used resources recommended in the school newsletter to set safe search settings on browsers. However, this laptop was on loan and they hadn't got around to setting it up.

Mel and Matt are not the only parents who have found themselves in this nightmare situation. A 2017 report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies has shown that just under half of all Australian children aged 9-16 years old have viewed pornography.

Initially, Mel snapped the laptop shut and sent Felix to his room. She set her younger son to drawing so she could talk to Felix alone. "I asked him how he was feeling about the things he'd seen. He said he felt yuck and I realised he was feeling confused."

Kristy Innes, Program Developer at Interrelate, a not-for-profit provider of relationship services, says Felix's reaction is not surprising. "One in three children aged ten years old have seen porn at least once. At that age it's hard to comprehend what's happening. It's very confronting."

Meanwhile, Mel was feeling yuck herself. "My mind just raced ahead and I thought, well, there goes the joy of simply sitting next to someone and holding their hand. Part of me knew I was catastrophising, but the other part just wanted to cry."

This was not necessarily an over-reaction on Mel's part. Innes reports, "Increasingly, young kids from the age of fourteen, especially boys, are needing treatment for porn addiction. They have an altered perception of what healthy relationships look like. Consequently, these boys are unable to have healthy relationships with their partners."

In an attempt to avoid negative long-term effects, Mel and Matt decided to talk honestly with Felix, with everything open for discussion.

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"Before this, we hadn't talked with him much about sex at all. We just didn't think there was a need. But after this episode, we couldn't really avoid the issue. Over the next few weeks we took things slowly, but we tried to discuss sex in an open way."

Every night, when their younger child was asleep, Mel sat on Felix's bed and asked if there was anything he wanted to ask. She had to be willing to give honest answers to uncomfortable questions, such as "How often do you and Dad have sex?" and "When was the last time?"

"The conversation delved into intense areas but we took the lead from Felix and the questions he was asking. We explained about pornography and the sex industry. That drugs and money are involved, often with heartbreak and emotional trauma."

"We chatted about how people meet in real life, how they become attracted to each other, and the steps of a relationship before kissing and sex."

"We just talked it out constantly, until it was a non-issue. He now knows those images are like a sci-fi movie, not reality."

Mel feels that, in hindsight, the whole situation was positive. It started conversations about the basics of relationships that wouldn't have happened if she hadn't found him watching porn in the living room.

"It's all different these days. Young people meet on dating apps, instead of hand-holding at school. The nature of the apps is so visual, with the swiping, it becomes so superficial. It's weird that we even had to discuss that women have pubic hair, despite what he might see in images."

Sean Tonnet, a family and relationships therapist based in northern NSW, stresses that, "For young children, laying the groundwork early around healthy sexuality minimises any embarrassment, shame or confusion they may feel later on. It also creates positive communication and a caring culture within the family."

Interestingly, Mel hasn't brought up the subject of sex and pornography with her younger son, who is now turning nine. But she thinks she should. "It needs to be addressed at a pretty young age. It's out there."

*names changed for privacy