Help! My teen's watching online porn

Story highlights

  • Countless parents have been shocked to learn their teens are viewing online porn
  • Study: 42% of Internet users ages 10 to 17 watched porn online in the past year

This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2015.

(CNN)What happened to Maddie, a mom of two boys, one afternoon has no doubt happened to countless other parents across the country.

Maddie's computer was out of juice, so she hopped on her 15-year-old son's laptop. She looked at the history of something she was working on and then, bam. There were links to 40 porn sites with topics too racy for me to print.
    "I was freaking out," said Maddie, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy and her son's.
    She immediately did something she has never done before during her nearly two decades as a parent: called her husband out of an extremely important client meeting.
    "I thought, 'Oh, my God, we need to talk about this,' " Maddie said. "There's nothing I can't handle with the kids. ... This I cannot handle," she added, remembering how she felt at the time.
    "It's not like Playboy, which your father had hanging around, where you could just see naked women."

    Teen online porn: The numbers

    Just how many teens are watching porn online? It seems hard to pinpoint, experts say, because it's tough for researchers to get access to teens when it comes to studies about sexuality.
    In one study widely cited in the media, 42% of Internet users ages 10 to 17 said they viewed porn online in the past 12 months.
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    But 66% of those who said they saw porn online said they weren't looking for it and saw it accidentally, according to the 2007 study by the University of New Hampshire and published in Pediatrics.
    Elizabeth Schroeder, a sexuality education expert who works with parents, teens, schools and organizations, says her first message to parents is that there's nothing wrong with their children because they sought out porn.
    "It's natural. It's normal. I hate to say it, but it's likely to happen with nearly every kid. It's not just the boys' story," said Schroeder, former executive director of Answer, a national sex education organization based at Rutgers University.
    Hormones are raging as puberty hits, plus there's just the curiosity factor, she added.
    "The discussion of porn and the acknowledgment that porn exists is so a part of mainstream media right now that it's impossible to not know about it."

    What's the impact?

    Schroeder says that once parents ask her why their teen would be watching online porn, their next question is typically, "What's the impact of watching it?"
    We don't really know, because there aren't many U.S.-based studies, Schroeder says.
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    "There isn't a true causation of 'I saw this in porn, and therefore I'm going to do it,' " she added. "Are there examples of that? Absolutely. Just like examples of kids who saw this violence on TV and ... acted on it, but there are so many kids who see the same kind of violence or porn and don't act on it that we can't really say there's a causation."
    In a survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in 2010 in conjunction with Seventeen magazine, 13% of young men ages 15 to 22 said porn influenced their decisions about sex (PDF): the same number who cited sex education as influencing their decisions.
    Cindy Gallop, founder and chief executive officer of the sex education site Make Love Not Porn, which does contain adult content, believes there is a definite connection between the hardcore online porn young men are watching and their sexual behaviors. The 54-year-old has experienced it personally. She dates men in their 20s, she said.
    "I realized ... that what I was experiencing was a result of two things converging, which is today's total freedom of access to hardcore porn online meeting our society's equally total reluctance to talk openly and honestly about sex," she said.

    Talking about sex

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    Gallop, who gave a 2009 TED talk that has been seen more than a million times and does include some verbal adult content, has dedicated herself to trying to help people of all ages talk about sex "openly, honestly, publicly ... and privately in their intimate relationships."
    "Today, very few parents ever bring themselves to talk to their children about sex," she said.
    And very often, parents have no clue about the kinds of things their kids are actually seeing online.
    "I say to them, 'if you want to understand what's going on here, you need to go online and see what they're seeing,' " said Schroeder, the sexuality education expert.
    "And what I say to them is, 'look at the ads, because sometimes the ads are way more disturbing and distressing than what they're seeing.' "
    There is parental control software and pornography-blocking technology, which some parents are relying on to prevent accidental exposure to online porn and prohibiting their children from accessing it intentionally, but even the backers of this technology say it's not foolproof.
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    "Technology tools cannot solve the issues alone," said Clayton Ostler, director of technology for Net Nanny, software that analyzes the content of every page and blocks pornography or other inappropriate content.
    "These tools are designed to be part of an overall solution that involves parenting and open conversations about why pornography is not acceptable for your teen."

    Having the talk

    Maddie's husband eventually had a conversation with their 15-year-old during a casual walk and told him there was nothing wrong with wanting to look at porn at his age.
    "It's just that it's so different now than it was for me ... my dad leaving Penthouse on the coffee table in case I was interested," he said, according to Maddie. "You want to be careful that you are not just wildly clicking around, because there's scary stuff."
    When parents confront their teens about their online porn viewing habits, it's crucial not to be accusatory, said Schroeder.
    "It's really important to say, 'Lot of kids do this. You are not in trouble, but I want to talk with you,' " she said.
    "I think it's OK to sit down with a child and say, 'I'm guessing that since you went on here you have some questions about sexuality. Is there anything you want to ask me?' "
    If the child doesn't want to talk about that, which is entirely likely, Schroeder says, parents can leave out a book or a magazine such as Sex, etc., which is made for teens and by teens.
    One of the most crucial things that kids need to hear from parents is why they are freaking out about their online porn watching in the first place.
    "Here's what I'm concerned about, and let me tell you why," Schroeder says parents can say. "The images you are seeing do not represent real life. They're not made for your age group. However, here's what there is, so it's not cutting you off completely."
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    Maddie says she still worries a little bit about what her son might watch, but she continues to keep tabs on him by checking his history, which he doesn't erase.
    "There are parents like us who believe that it's natural for them to be curious but with parameters and caution."