Finding your kid's porn

A dad's letter to his smut-surfing son goes viral, raising the question of how to deal with a pubescent pornophile

Published September 30, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

          (<a href=''>Condor 36</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Condor 36 via Shutterstock)

A father is removing scamware from his 13-year-old son's computer when he finds porn -- lots of it -- in the browser history. So the dad writes a note: "Listen, I was 13 once too and it wasn't so long ago that I don't remember. I'm not mad or anything. It's life and I did it too."

He explains that "there are sites that are completely safe and you can go on them and not have your computer turned into a piece of junk." He even lists a handful of recommended destinations, including and The dad goes on to say, "Listen, I won't tell your mom and I'm not gonna make a big deal out of this. ... If you want to completely ignore this ever happened then I can and will do that too." He ends the letter with, "I love you and I couldn't be more proud of you."

This is the Cool Dad™ approach an anonymous Reddit poster says he took. Earlier this week, he wrote about the experience, and included his lengthy note to his son, and asked his fellow Redditors if he did the right thing. Then in came the comments -- more than 6,000 of them to date. Before long, the post made the site's front page; it currently has over 23,000 "up votes." Reactions ranged from "much better than my parents" to "that has to be the worst possible reaction."

Everyone has an opinion on how to deal with a pubescent porn-watcher. I've always sort of appreciated the fact that my liberal, sex-positive parents never confronted me over my adolescent AOL cyber-sexing or scrambled-porn watching. They must have known, but they apparently never chose to mention it -- beyond general conversations about Internet safety, and what healthy, happy sex meant to them. But, then again, look how I turned out. This Reddit tale got me wondering what experts advise in these situations. The question is more relevant than ever: The average age a boy first sees porn is 10, according to at least one report. (No word on first porn for girls, humph.)

Amy Lang, a sexual health educator and founder of Birds + Bees+ Kids, tells me this Reddit dad got some things right: "I love that he wrote his son a note -- this is the perfect way to communicate with a young adolescent boy about something like this," she says. "What I don't love is that he didn't clarify that porn isn't reality and that it will give him a skewed idea of what real sex is like and what it's all about." Perhaps it wasn't just his son's embarrassment that he was avoiding in his practical-seeming note, but also his own. "If I were this dad, I would leap at the opportunity to start having regular conversations about sexuality with my son," Lang says. "The door has been kicked open."

So finding your kid's porn is a golden opportunity for an honest sex talk -- but what about the basic question of whether it's OK for young teens to be watching porn? Several of the experts I spoke with gave a definitive "no."

Airial Clark, who coaches parents on talking to their kids about sex, argues that forbidding your adolescent from watching porn "doesn't make you a prude or a hypocrite; it makes you a responsible adult." She explains, "I am a strong advocate for age-appropriate sexuality education. I'm also a strong advocate for age of consent laws. I absolutely believe kids should not be viewing porn." At the same time, she believes that kids should know that porn exists and be able to talk to their parents about it. "It sounds like a contradiction, but that is what a lot of parenting is," says Clark, author of The Sex-Positive Parent blog. "Negotiating contradictions."

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, agrees: "I don’t think that adolescents ought to be viewing Internet pornography, particularly at this young age, and I think it is inappropriate, to say the least, for parents to be encouraging it, which is how I think this father's actions could easily be interpreted." In his book, "You and Your Adolescent," Steinberg writes that "hard-core pornography links sex to aggression," "distorts male-female relationships," "ignores intimacy" and "presents an unrealistic picture of sexual behavior." He also argues, "At a stage when young people have many doubts about their own bodies and sexual competency, it isn't helpful to watch women with enormous breasts and men with huge penises mimicking sexual ecstasy."

Lang adds, "Internet porn is generally way too much information about sex for a 13-year-old boy. He really doesn't have the emotional or intellectual ability to make sense of what he's viewing." She believes the days of sexual discovery via Playboy were healthier because still erotic images "engage their imagination." While she recommends banning young teens from porn-surfing, she's not opposed to the idea of distracting them with a couple of old-fashioned girlie mags.

She says it can be reasonable for older teens to visit X-rated sites -- but where exactly to draw the line? How do you know if your kid is ready to view porn? "The parent has to take the time to know about their teen's sexuality. You’re going to have to ask your kid why they are watching it. You're going to ask them what they think they’ve learned from it," says Clark. "I wish there was a universal [rule], but there really isn't."

Not all adolescent sexual health experts agree on the porn proscription. Heather Corinna, founder of the teen sex-ed site Scarleteen, believes that "pornography tends to provide a really problematic sexual education," but isn't ready to recommend prohibiting all 13-year-olds from watching porn. "I mean, first of all, our sexual imaginations [aren't only stimulated by] porn," she writes in an email. "Would these same adults have said no Madonna records or Hanson posters?"

She also argues that "there's a lot of denial about how much porn media is out there, how normalized it is, and how it's not something easy to avoid even without actually looking for it." Even kids who accidentally stumbled on it "are usually going to look, and may look a lot," she says. "People can say it's inappropriate all they want, I guess, but it won't stop it from happening, and talk about a thought-stopping cliche. I mean, way to close the door to any conversation about it."

All that said, she takes issue with the lack of conversation around porn and generational coming-of-age differences, as well as the dad's recommendation of specific sites. It was ostensibly because he wanted to avoid computer viruses, "but the young dude is still going to get that they are Dad's porn preferences," she says. That "may be more than he wanted to know about Dad" and "can send a message to a young person that X kind of sex or porn is the right kind, and Y kind isn't, if you follow me." She believes adults should be careful to avoid giving young people sexual prescriptions.

This Reddit post went viral precisely because it is so hard to get these things right -- especially now. The dad took a "rational and reality based response," says Clark, and that's refreshing for parents who are themselves immersed in the world of online porn, or even grew up with it, she says. "People are starved for reasonable, middle-of-the road parenting advice," she argues. "So people are responding well to the fact that the dad didn't display some faux outrage and be a hypocrite about finding porn on the computer."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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