Ep 107: Only 7% of Parents Do This…

Episode Summary

Megan Maas, PhD, award-winning researcher at Michigan State University, leads us through the latest reports on pornography use among adolescents. Andy learns only 7% of parents have talked to their teens about porn.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When it comes to having hard conversations with teenagers, talking about pornography is often one of the most awkward and unprecedented topics to cover. It feels so private, so uncomfortable to bring up….especially with your own child!  It’s ever so tempting to just skip the conversation altogether. It’s not that likely that your teen is watching porn….right?

Quite the contrary. In fact, recent research indicates that about 90% of boys and 60% of girls today are exposed to porn before the age of 17. Not only that, but about a third of teenagers say they watch porn regularly, on a weekly or monthly basis. In contrast, only about 7% of parents have talked to their teenagers about pornograpy. And with modern pornography becoming more and more exploitative of both it’s stars and it’s viewers, teens could be at risk of viewing some seriously dark stuff–and getting into some frightening patterns.

That’s why we have the brilliant Megan Maas on the podcast this week. She’s a seasoned sex educator and researcher of adolescent psychology, and focuses a lot of her  energy on helping teenagers and parents become more comfortable with talking about pornography and it’s effects. She’s here to chat all about how to start those hard conversations about porn–and explain why they’re so important.

In the episode, Megan dives into why porn is becoming more and more frightening for young people, the possible effects of watching too much porn as a teen, and how we can strike up those talks about porn  we might be dreading.

When Porn Becomes Problematic

Since we rarely talk about porn–and usually experience it behind closed doors–we might not see it as a widespread phenomenon. However, if we look at statistics about internet usage, we find that the popular pornography website, Pornhub, recieves more traffic than Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter combined. Almost thirty percent of the content that exists online can be classified as pornography…meaning that there’s more porn on the internet than any of us could ever live long enough to watch!

With all that porn available to viewers, companies that produce pornogrpahy have had to take new measures to get views, and these measures aren’t exactly the most positive for performers or our teens. In order to compete for clicks, companies are more likely to make videos increasingly risque and shocking. This kind of porn is what we want to keep teens from watching, porn that disregards the idea of consent, respect, and pleasure in sexual intimacy.

Although there is porn out there that isn’t necessarily damaging, porn that shows healthy sexual activity between consenting partners, these videos are often mixed in with or buried under much more toxic and disturbing material. 

You might be thinking that the easiest solution is to download software to block porn sites on your teen’s computer, or punish them for watching these videos. However, these restrictions might only make the problem worse, Megan warns. In the episode, she discusses how trying to keep teens from watching porn together may only cause them to become more interested in watching it–and internalizing what they see.

In addition to tackling toxic porn, Megan also touches on another important concern–what might happen if your teen develops a porn addiction?

The Effects of Too Much Porn

We know it’s natural for teens to develop sexual urges after puberty, and that they may be attracted to porn occasionally when seeking sexual arousal, but when should we be concerned about the quantity of porn they consume? 

In the episode, Megan and I discuss some common questions surrounding  excessive porn use among teenagers. Does watching exessive pornography from a young age make teens more inclined to sexual violence? Does porn replace the need for actual sexual activity if it’s consumed too heavily?

Megan shares knowledge from her own research as well as other studies to talk about how porn affects the teenage brain. She discusses why it is exactly thar teens are having less sex these days than they used to–a phenomenon often falsely attributed to teens’ porn consumption. 

She also equates pornography with fast food: although it can be enjoyable and convenient, it can also have damaging effects if too consumed too much. Megan and I talk in more depth about how this idea can extend past the sphere of pornography to incoporate other areas of modern teenage life. Does social media replace teens’ need for actual socialization? Tune in to hear what Megan has to say about how today’s technology affects teen behavior all around

But back to the topic at hand. You know the dangers that pornography can pose to your teen, and it’s time to educate them to ensure they traverse the internet safely. We know starting that conversation isn’t easy, but Megan is here to help.

Talking to Your Teen About Pornography

When sitting your teen down to discuss this potentially awkward subject, just remember: it’s totally natural for any teen to be interested in pornography. Although pornography as we know it developed in the mid twentieth century with photography and videography becoming more and more accessible over time, erotica and erotic images have existed in every civilization since the beginning of time. Megan suggests entering the conversation with the mindset that all teenagers are likely experiencing newfound sexual urges and that these feelings are simply a product of biology.

Since it’s likely that teens are going to be encountering porn regardless of what you say, Megan explains how you can give your teen a comprehensive run-down of the things they should be looking out for when choosing what porn to watch. Porn that features  consent, protection, and mutual pleasure are the ones teenagers should be watching, if they choose to watch any, says Megan.

Instead of just having one big talk about sex and pornography, Megan suggests having many small talks over time, starting early and continuing indefinitely. By frequently checking in on your teenager’s sexual health and development, you can ensure that they’re remaining safe and secure in their own body. Having an open line of communication can help you build trust with your teen, meaning they’re more likely to clue you in when something’s wrong.

Overall, the important thing is to remind your teen that they are valuable, smart, and have control over their own mind and body. By teaching them to think critically about porn and their own sexual preferences, you are allowing them to have agency over their own sexual choices, instead of shame or confusion.

In the Episode…

On top of addressing possible concerns that you might have about your teen’s porn consumption and giving tips for starting conversations about responsible porn use with your teen, Megan and I discuss:

  • How young people learn through observation
  • What we can do to turn our sex education in a more positive direction
  • How abstinence education might be damaging to your teen
  • Why stigmatizing sex in your household can be dangerous to your teen’s sexual health

If you enjoyed listening to Megan as much as I did, you can check out her website, Meganmaas.com, where you can access her monthly newsletter and plenty of other great resources. It was a joy to have Megan this week, and we hope you share, subscribe, and come back again.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Acknowledge it isn’t easy to have conversations about sex and porn…but it’s important:

“Hey we should have been talking about this before, but, you know, my mom, my dad, never talked to me about it and it’s hard for me to talk about, but I want to do things differently.”

-Megan Maas

2. An easy way to start the conversation about pornography:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You kind of research a topic that is maybe an unconventional topic to research or is kind of a taboo topic. So I’m really interested. What compelled you to devote your career to studying porn and Internet sex and online sexting and all of the things that you are doing in your work?

Megan: Yeah, all the scandalous things that teenagers do on the Internet, right?

Andy: All the stuff that nobody wants to talk about, you’re like, “Hey, let’s jump right into it.”

Megan: I think that is actually part of it, is that it’s a personality trait of mine that I’ve always been one, even, I guess, apparently as a little kid, to sort of acknowledge the elephant in the room or talk about things that people aren’t comfortable talking about. So I think there’s somewhat of something in my personality that’s kind of drawn to that type of thing. So, for example, at one point, when I knew that I was interested in psychology, I was also really interested in death and the process and all of that. That’s another topic that we don’t really talk about.

Megan: So I think there’s a little bit of that. I wish I had a really great story to tell to answer that question, because it’s really been a cumulative snowball kind of a deal, where certainly my own experiences growing up in our culture, being a girl and a woman and experiencing our sexualized media and being really confused by those messages versus messages I was receiving from my mom, which were really positive, versus messages I was receiving from church, which were really negative, and so just really trying to put it all together myself, I guess.

Megan: Then with pornography in particular, because most of our sort of foundations about how young people learn about behavior is mostly through observation. I mean, there’s certainly through other forms as well, but we observe how other people act. So we learn how to be friends by watching other friendships, and we learn how to be employees by watching other employees. The only place we really see sex, actual sex, is in pornography. I mean, certainly we see … In films, they can allude to sex happening, or we see everything leading up to sex.

Andy: Sure. Artistic sex. Yeah.

Megan: Exactly. Yeah. So it seems silly to be interested in romantic relationships and sexual health and sexual behavior and media influences of that behavior and not be investigating pornography.

Andy: Okay. So I’m trying to picture in my head … Maybe you could walk me through how one actually studies porn. We’re bringing people into the lab, and we’re saying, “Hey, we’re going to show you a video,” and then, blam, it’s porn, or we’re watching their reactions, or we’re putting them in MRI and we’re just, blam, showing them some porn and then seeing what happens in their brain? That’s probably not going to get approved by the IRB, honestly.

Andy: I mean, how do you actually go about investigating this, and especially teenagers who are not supposed to even be engaging in that?

Megan: Yeah. So there are researchers who do put participants in the lab, invite participants in the lab and show them porn clips and view their brains through fMRI technology and use plethysmographs to measure how aroused their genitals are. Then they can self-report how aroused they are and things that.

Andy: A little nob [to turn up and down].

Megan: Yep. As you can imagine, the majority of this research is done in Canada and European countries. It’s not really done in the US a whole lot. It’s expensive to do, and you pretty much nailed it. We can’t do it with teens.

Megan: I don’t think we will be able to anytime soon. So that presents a pretty big gap in the research, for sure, that is unfortunate in some ways, but certainly, we want to be as ethical as we can. So most of my research just relies on self-report, which can also be problematic, college students and teens to reporting on how much pornography they’ve seen or what they’ve seen, at what age they’ve seen it, how they use it, their attitudes towards it, that type of thing, so through surveys and interviews and focus groups.

Andy: Okay. I hear that. I mean, yeah, that’s got to be hard. It’s kind of one of those awkward things to talk about and probably … We always assume with our alcohol research that it’s always underrepresented in those kind of surveys just by default, because kids just are skeptical of a survey that comes from adults and is asking them about stuff they’re not supposed to be doing or engaging in or whatever.

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the best studies that we have that was conducted by a phenomenal team is our only, that I’m aware of, our own nationally representative study, so where the sampling was done pretty well with actual adolescents, I think as young as 11. But they asked them about their online experiences over the phone, and, as you can imagine, so we do have some social desirability in answering surveys that are relatively anonymous, but phone calls, I think would probably even add more pressure, particularly if parents are around or in the same room.

Andy: Right, like “Can Dad hear me while I’m saying this? Okay. Yes, I have watched porn, but don’t tell my parents.”

Megan: Right?

Andy: Yeah, totally.

Megan: So it’s hard. Of course, those statistics coming from those studies tend to be on the more conservative side than some other studies. But we also want to be cautious that the way that other studies are conducted have their flaws as well in terms of convenience sampling and things like that. So the science is kind of a mess at this point when it comes to research on teen porn use, at least, so the under-eighteen crowd.

Andy: So okay, you mentioned the statistics are a little bit low in some of those, especially the phone ones. But, I mean, what kind of statistics are we talking about here? Is this something like 10% of teenagers are doing, or is this something 5% of teenagers are doing?

Megan: Well, so research does show, even though the statistics do vary quite a bit, most studies will show that up to 90% of boys by the age of 17 and up to 60% of girls by the age of 17 have at least seen it. Now, this is just being exposed on the bus, stumbling upon it online, what have you. It’s more like 5 to 30% of the 8 to 12 crowd, with the 30% being more unintentional exposure and that 5% being more like they were seeking it out online, they Googled it or what have you. But in terms of weekly use, monthly use, or exposure, those statistics are kind of all over the place.

Megan: But we can sort of rely on about a third of adolescents in high school are using porn pretty regularly, and more than half are seeing it quite a bit. Almost all have seen it at least once.

Andy: So then where do parents fit into that, or is there any data on … So 90% of kids, the males at least, have seen or at least admit that they’ve seen or been exposed to it. So is that about the same, about 90% of parents have talked to their kids about porn and have had conversations about it, or is that more kind of 80%, or it’s a little lower than that, or what?

Megan: We’re talking like 7%, like 7.

Andy: Wow.

Megan: 7%. That’s what we found.

Andy: So we’ve got some work to do, parents.

Megan: Yeah. In a study that we did of over 2,000 college students, we found that only 7% had parents who ever discussed pornography with them.

Andy: Wow. Okay. So if you’re hearing this and you’re, “Well, I haven’t done that,” you’re not alone.

Megan:No, you’re not alone. No. But we do have some work to do. You’re not alone. But yeah, it’s time to change that, for sure.

Andy: So, is porn really that bad?

Megan: That’s a good question.

Andy: I mean, they’re going to be curious about it. Maybe it’s better to be exposed to it before you just find yourself in a sexual situation and have no idea how things work down there and all that. Are there benefits to porn? What do we know about what the effects are on kids?

Megan: Well, so there’s actually a few questions in that that I can sort of walk through. I would first want to start off with saying that, really, wondering, “Is it all that bad?” is actually a great first step in terms of acknowledging just how normal it is to be sexual as a teenager and to be curious about sex and to want to see naked people and even to want to watch people have sex. That’s completely natural, and we’ve always had sexual content, although it’s really more erotica, which means sex depicted in art. Throughout almost every civilization has had that. Pornography, which the Greek root words mean “photograph of a prostitute,” we really have only had since photography, so the late 1800s, and then, really, since photography became cheaper in the ’50s and ’60s, where we had more widely circulated, sexually explicit content to view both through magazines and then to rent through videos and DVDs and things that.

Andy: Sure.

Megan: So I would say in general, looking at nude people and watching people have sex is one thing, right?

Andy: Right.

Megan: But the kind of porn, the kinds of sex that teens have access to today is just totally different than, say, when I was a teenager. When we saw porn, it was nude people in magazines in sexual positions. We joked around where we were at slumber parties and would try to find the Skinemax channel and change the channel real quick if we heard a parent walk by. So that soft core porn, obviously, and even when it was in and still is in hotel rooms and things like that, the behaviors were pretty regulated. There was rules about distributing content, whereas now it’s almost impossible to regulate the Internet form, because anybody with a camera–

Andy: Anybody with a camera and an Internet connection can just immediately–

Megan: –totally. Yeah. So that means that our teens then have access to all sorts of stuff. So, for example, I was talking with someone the other day, an 18-year-old who was talking about one of his first experiences when he was 13 and he was Googling “blow jobs.” He came across videos of girls crying while performing oral sex on men, because it was so forceful, and him just being totally freaked out, because, A, he knew it was violent and wrong, but, B, his body was also kind of reacting to it, as bodies would.

Megan: It’s just the natural reaction for us to be aroused to seeing people have sex and just to seeing naked people. For very simplistic terms, it’s not part of our thinking brain. It’s a part of our feeling brain. He had no education at that point. I mean, even at 18, he’s still like, “What is that all about?” So we know very little about what having access to that kind of sex or just the craziest stuff that … Honestly, even if I really even knew about it and wanted to see it as a teenager, I could not have found half of the stuff that you can just see, even when you don’t want to. For instance, one of the common genres online, on free tube site porn, it’s run like YouTube, for listeners who aren’t aware, where there’s no paywall, and so you can go on and see all sorts of stuff, but it’s all mixed together. So there might be some content on there that shows people engaging in consensual sex in a mutually pleasurable way that’s loving or at least respectful.

Andy: Maybe with condoms…

Megan: Yeah, and even safe.

Andy: Hey, let’s do that. Yeah.

Megan: Yeah. But it might be alongside videos of step-daddy punishing daughter or brother sleeping with sister kind of a … That kind of stuff, we couldn’t have even found as kids or teens, because it’s totally illegal to make and distribute anything like that that would insinuate sex with a minor. So, anyway, so there’s a lot to untangle there in terms of what they’re actually seeing. So I would say putting my academic hat on, in theory, of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking at naked people or even watching people have sex, necessarily.

Andy: Right.

Megan: From just a purely scientific, developmentally natural way, post-puberty, we’re ready to be sexually aroused. We might not be ready for the complexity of sexual interactions and relationships, but our bodies are getting online for that. So it’s natural, but what they have exposure to is just a whole other beast that makes us sort of concerned about what are the implications of exposure to stuff that we wouldn’t necessarily recommend you trying in real life, certainly not in your first several years of sexual activity.

Andy: So, you’re talking about these tube sites where you can log on for free and just start watching porn. But, I mean, is that common? How many people are actually doing that, compared to Netflix or what, YouTube, or just regular media?

Megan: Well, we actually know that people will actually visit Pornhub more than Twitter, Netflix, and Amazon combined. So that’s a lot of action. YouPorn use six times the bandwidth of Hulu. So, I mean, it is just dominating. 30% of the internet is porn, 30% of it.

Andy: Wow.

Megan: There’s so much porn online we could not live long enough to watch it all. So it’s not going anywhere. So when I do trainings and stuff with parents, they’re like, “Oh, well, I’ve got all of these filters. I have secured everything. They’re good. They’re not going to watch it. They don’t have access to it,” and that is–

Andy: Naive. Oh, sorry. What?

Megan: Well, it’s important to do, but it’s very…yeah, it’s very naive. It’s important to do for younger kids, but it’s completely naive to think that that would be completely effective at, and that is not the point. The point is not to completely protect them for it. The point is to give them the tools and the skills that they need to live in a world where unlimited porn is at their fingertips at all times.

Andy: Right. That does nothing. If you’re actually effective in blocking the porn completely so that they never see it, that’s actually maybe the worst thing you could do, because then they have no exposure to it at all. You’ve taught them nothing about it, and they’ve learned no skills about how to deal with it or cope with it. Then they’re going to go off on their own, and who knows what’s going to happen? I guess, I mean, that’s, I think, a common thread in a lot of parenting right now, is just this strong desire to just protect the kids from getting exposed to any negative thing, and so, “Hey, we can just block it. How do we block it? How do we just stop them from getting access to it?” Probably better to have lots of conversations with them about it and somehow teach them how to regulate themselves or somehow engage with it in a positive way.

Megan: Yeah. I mean, so especially with older teens. I mean, so I do recommend [filters]–

Andy: Yeah, if you’ve got a six-year-old, you might want to put a couple safe filters on there.

Megan: Yeah, because we do know that for the kids under 13, even under 14, some kids, they’ve certainly heard about it by that age, but they’re not necessarily seeking it out. It’s important to make sure that you are both sending the message that you know that these devices are connecting them to the outside world and that there’s content on there that you want to make sure that they don’t see because it might make them feel confused or scared or what have you, and even if they get through it, you’re still sending the message that this is something that we are aware of and doing. But by the time they’re 16 or something, you sort of loosen up a little bit and give them more autonomy and realize they’re going to have to learn how to manage that themselves. Pretty soon, they’re going to be on their own.

Andy: Because, I mean, also, if I’m 13 and my parent tells me, “Oh, there’s things out there that you really shouldn’t see, and so we’ve got blocking software on there to make sure that you don’t see it,” immediately, if I haven’t already, the first thing I’m going to do is go Google “how to hack parent blocking software,” figure out what blocking software they’re using. I’m sure someone’s got a tutorial about exactly how to get around it. I’m sure within about two hours, I could figure out how to … It’s a challenge. It would be fun, honestly, to figure out how to get around it, and then I get to check out all this taboo stuff that my parents just told me. Sweet. It must be awesome if they’re making such a big deal about it. I don’t know.

Megan: Totally. Yep.

Andy: So it’s kind of like at what point do you make the shift, or at what point do you say, “Okay, we’re taking the blocking off,” and then does that unleash a tidal wave, or is that kind of different for every kid and you just have to be really tuned in to kind of where your teenager is in their development? So how do you …

Megan: For sure. It’s going to just depend. Some kids can be 15 and they can make their own food. They can do their own laundry. They turn in their homework on time. They’re dialed in. They’re self-regulated. They’re on their way to adulthood. There’s other 20-year-olds who can barely make toast or figure out … They could literally be playing Fortnite for 48 hours straight with barely taking any time to pee or eat or … So it totally depends on what their regulation status is. So parents have got to do what works for their families.

Megan: There is no better way to prepare your kids than through just education and not freaking out when you do learn of these things that they’re doing so that they know that they can talk to you when there is a problem, when there is actual violent sex that they’ve seen or somebody’s asking them to send them videos of themselves or it’s a video of something that they’re doing. They’re not going to go to a parent who is freaking out about the littlest thing.

Andy: Absolutely not. No.

Megan: They’re just not. They know that they’re not going to handle that, or even a parent who punishes. I know some parents have been like, “I found out my kid was looking at porn. I said, ‘If I ever catch you doing this again, no friends for four months,'” and it’s like, “Really?” That is not the hill you want to die on.

Andy: Yeah. Right, right.

Megan: Just like you were saying, I mean, making punishments for that kind of thing is only going to make it that much more exciting.

Andy: Yeah. I mean, and also, you don’t really have to do much to make sex more exciting. They talk about the four F’s. I mean, it’s the basic survival instincts, and that’s one of them. It’s going to happen, and they’re going to be drawn to it, which is totally normal and natural.

About Megan Maas

Megan Maas, PhD, is an assistant professor in Human Development & Family Studies at Michigan State University. She received her PhD in 2016 from Pennsylvania State University as a pre-doctoral fellow funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Her award-winning research focuses on adolescent sexual socialization, with an emphasis on how social media, sexting, and online pornography affect attitudes and behavior related to sexuality and gender. Broadly, Megan is interested in promoting healthy romantic relationships and sexual competencies as well as preventing unwanted sexual experiences.

Prior to receiving her PhD, Megan worked in health education and developed a popular lecture series which integrated peer-reviewed information on pornography use into sexual health behavior for lectures for college students, parents, and mental health professionals. Since then, Megan has served as a facilitator, workshop leader, and speaker on issues revolving around adolescent sexuality, sexualization, pornography use, sexual socialization, pornography use in romantic relationships, and parent-child communication about sexuality at universities and organizations across the country.

Want More Dr. Maas?

Find Megan on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Don’t forget to check out her TEDx Talk!