CNN  — 

Long gone are the days of accessing porn only at the local magazine and video stores. Today, internet and cable television services make pornographic content available to almost anyone. A lot of internet porn is available without charge, and some graphic novels and Japanese anime have incorporated pornographic or nearly pornographic images and plotlines.

In the cyber age, porn is easily accessible to adolescents online. In fact, most porn these days is accessed through the internet, according to a 2016 meta-analysis published in The Journal of Sex Research.

Adolescents who viewed violent, graphic pornography were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed, according to a 2011 study cited by a 2012 review of research. Kids aren’t only seeing porn at younger ages these days, but they are seeing more porn and more graphic porn than their parents did. Pornography, however, is no substitute for open and honest sex education.

Such was the consensus among some psychologists and educators this past week after brutally honest — and heartbreaking — comments from singer Billie Eilish about exposure to porn at a young age.

In an appearance on “The Howard Stern Show” on SiriusXM Radio, Eilish said she started watching porn around age 11. “It really destroyed my brain,” she said, adding that graphically violent imagery gave her nightmares and sleep paralysis.

Singer Billie Eilish opened up about  trauma from watching violent porn starting at age 11. She is shown at the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Festival  in Las Vegas, September 18.

“The first few times I had sex, I was not saying no to things that were not good; it was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to,” said Eilish, who turned 20 on December 18. Eilish went on to say she “didn’t understand why it was a bad thing” and that she “thought that’s how you learned how to have sex.” When she told her mother, the Grammy Award winner said her mom was horrified by the idea that her daughter was learning about sex this way.

Her comments about being “traumatized” were a painful reminder of how porn and other sexualized media can impact young adults in today’s world, sex educators told CNN.

Emily Rothman, chair of the department of occupational therapy at Boston University who is also a professor of pediatrics and medicine, said Eilish’s comments serve as a wake-up call for parents and other trusted grown-ups to play a more active role in children’s lives.

“Having a conversation with youth about what they have seen, when, where and how many times, can be really helpful to try to prevent future incidents and answer their questions,” said Rothman, who teaches and researches about sex, sexuality and gender and has provided violence-related consulting to state departments of public health and coalitions of domestic violence programs.

“We need to do more to prevent youth from viewing sexually explicit media. And because no matter what we do, some of them will see it anyway, we also need to provide information and education to all youth about the fact that pornography is not an instruction manual on how to have sex.”

Graphic porn is easily accessible to tweens and teens

Eilish described what she was watching as “abusive porn,” depicting violence against women “without consent.” What’s more, her experiences might be more common than most adults choose to admit.

Porn “is available all the time on the internet, and even if parents put up blockers, kids are finding ways to access it,” said Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that publishes entertainment and technology recommendations for families. “Whether they’re seeking it out themselves or they’re accessing it unintentionally through friends or older siblings, it’s there.”

There isn’t much trustworthy and recent research about the intersection of tweens and porn, according to Robb. It’s an area that researchers have had difficulty studying due to ethical questions and lack of participation. Furthermore, Robb analyzes the studies on the subject of kids and porn, and said many of these endeavors have had questionable methodologies.

More reliable data that do exist suggest Eilish’s experiences are typical, Robb said. One he cites often:

A 2017 survey of 1,001 young people and children in the United Kingdom, which indicated that 28% of those 11-12-year olds reported seeing porn, while 65% of 15-16 year olds reported seeing it. Robb said these numbers are likely higher now because of increased screen use during the Covid-19 pandemic.

All about education

Of course, as Rothman suggested, the real issue underlying most conversations about porn is education.

Tweens and teens watch the material like Eilish did and think it’s real life, laying the groundwork for distorted reality and associated problems down the road, according to David Ley, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Ley added that the real disconnect comes with what porn doesn’t show.

“Healthy sexual interactions require negotiation and consent and honesty and self-control and respect,” he said. “Most porn skips over all of this, and without the proper context, kids who are curious and watch it aren’t going to understand how important all of these issues are to healthy sexual relationships.”

Part of the challenge here is educating kids about healthy sexual interactions, Ley noted.

While most formal sex education in the United States doesn’t start until middle school, many other nations start teaching kids about it at a younger age. Ley said the effects of this early exposure are indisputable: In the Netherlands, where the basics of sex education begin between ages 4 and 6, there are lower rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assault.

“We have this idea and belief that we have if you don’t talk about something it won’t happen,” he said. “The reality is that not talking about it sets up kids for unfortunate lessons.”

These comments resonated with author Peggy Orenstein.

Over the last 15 years, Orenstein has written six books about young people, sexuality and sex, and she’s interviewed hundreds of tweens and teens along the way. In talking to these kids, she said she has learned they are picking up misplaced messages from a variety of media.

“It’s imperative to talk to young people about sexuality that’s legal and ethical and good,” Orenstein said. “The values of male sexual entitlement, female submissiveness and availability, and female performance for male pleasure are prevalent in today’s world. It’s not just porn (where kids see these values). It’s easy to get alarmed about many of the things young people are seeing.”

Sex as meaningful human connection

Many experts said the best way for parents to engage in conversation with kids about human sexuality is to discuss it as a celebration of the human condition and how people can connect on deeper, more meaningful levels.

This also makes it critically important to recognize different sexual identities.

Aredvi Azad, co-executive director of The Heal Project, a nonprofit that teaches kids about healthy living, noted that any modern conversation about sex, sexuality and gender must extend beyond the heteronormative, cisgendered relationships depicted in most mainstream pornography.

“If we don’t talk about sex more broadly, we are unintentionally creating a situation where kids who don’t have interests within what is deemed normal can easily descend into a shame spiral,” Azad said.

“We need to help kids understand every aspect of sexual and gender identity, and that asexuality is a thing, too,” said Azad, who identifies as genderfluid and uses they/them pronouns.

For adults only

It’s also important to note that pornography isn’t always considered bad.

A recent op-ed by noted sex educator Cindy Gallop pointed out that porn can be innovative, creative, and even downright feminist if made with a focus on a woman’s comfort and desires.

Chelsea Kurnick, an LGBTQ advocate and community builder in Sonoma County, California, agreed. Kurnick said there is a host of porn outside the mainstream that is “beautiful and instructive and can be empowering for adults to watch.”

In many cases, “queer and trans people, fat people (and) disabled people” can gain useful and helpful knowledge from porn that’s made by and for them, Kurnick said. She added that this material is strictly for adults.

“It is totally true that there are often unrealistic expectations set by porn and that you can find violent or disturbing stuff online,” she said. “It’s also important to remember that porn isn’t made for 11-year-olds, it can be healthy for adults to see, and it’s something real people do for a living.”

What parents can do

The best way parents can respond to children’s natural curiosity about pornography is to be proactive and supportive in the process of discussing it with kids.

As Gallop wrote in her recent essay, this means parents must commit to talking to kids about sex frankly and straightforwardly.

Orenstein said that for her, it means conversations should focus on the notion that all people are worthy of dignity and respect.

To achieve these goals, parents must strive to create from the very beginning an atmosphere where children don’t feel or experience shame for expressing curiosities as they develop, according to Jennifer Kelman, a therapist and clinical social worker in Boca Raton, Florida.

Parents also should commit to parenting with positivity, answering just about every question that kids ask, Kelman said, even if the answers simply state that children are not yet old enough for more information to satisfy their request.

Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter

Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.

“Parents need to be open about (kids) possibly being exposed to (porn) and validate their natural curiosity around it, while allowing them to express their thoughts and feelings around sexual intimacy,” Kelman said. “There is no shame in natural growth and curiosity, so (parents must) talk to kids about real love and the harms that pornography can do.”

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Northern California.