LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX

“They go into another world and we can’t get them back”: A psychotherapist on why parents must talk to their kids about porn

When Julie Lynn-Evans, a well-known UK-based psychotherapist, talks about the dramatic rise she has seen in self-harm, anorexia, depression and suicide threats among the teens in her practice, she is quick to assign blame: smartphones.

“The one common factor of why these children are so dramatically filled with dread and shame and cuts, and feeling so lost—that factor is this parallel universe in their pockets, where they spend much, if not all, of their time,” Lynn-Evans says. “I don’t see the parallel universe of the internet creating happy and balanced kids.”

Chief among Lynn-Evans’ concerns is sex, and porn. Kids are seeing and experiencing things online that they cannot contextualize or process, much of it related to sex, she says. “And they have nowhere to turn because parents have no idea what they are doing online.”

A recent report (pdf) found that 28% of 11-12 years olds in the UK had seen porn, a figure which rises to 65% by the time they are 15. Kids were asked how they felt the first time they saw porn. Disgusted, shocked, and confused were the most common words they used—but those feelings waned, the more they watched.

Perhaps more disturbing was the impact: Of those who had seen porn, 21% of 11- to 12-year-olds and 42% of 15-year-olds wanted to emulate it. “One of our concerns is around developing healthy sexual relationships,” said Elena Martellozzo, one of the authors of the study. “To some of the children, porn is realistic and they want to copy what they see online, and that could lead to violence to partners or future partners.”

Lynn-Evans says she has already seen that scenario play out. She cites a well-known statistic: more than 81% of boys are watching porn at home. Then she cites a less-well known one: the number one reason girls are admitted to the emergency room at a nearby upscale hospital is no longer cutting, but anal tearing. Online porn, she says, “is brutalizing boys about what they think they can ask for.”

Last year the BBC, through freedom of information requests to police, discovered that 5,500 sexual offenses were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including rapes. When the Guardian asked teachers in an online forum about sexual violence in schools, dozens responded, reporting an increase in sexualized language and behavior among even the youngest of school children.

As a psychotherapist in private practice and for the National Health Service, Lynn-Evans is privy to information many parents are not: the deepest fears and anxieties teens are facing and the questions they feel they cannot ask others. She has seen much more than most parents—she’s been working with kids for 25 years—and her views are based on that experience. She said she’s willing to change her mind. “But it is all that I see,” she says.

What she sees every day has scared her enough that she is speaking out, trying to call attention to the need for parents to set more limits and take a more active role in talking about sex, bullying, and other awkward and painful topics.

Beyond one doctor’s views

Statistics on teens’ mental health in the UK back up Lynn-Evans’ claim that the kids are not alright.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of girls admitted to British hospitals after cutting themselves has quadrupled, according to National Health Service statistics obtained by the Guardian. The number of girls under 18 who were hospitalized after poisoning themselves increased 42% since 2005, to 13,853 in 2015. And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 87% of young people who self-harm don’t seek treatment.

“This is a depressing confirmation of the clinical experience of child and adolescent psychiatrists’ experience on the ground,” Dr Peter Hindley, chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Guardian.

Kids’ unhappiness can of course be caused by many things: the rise of single parent households, the financial crisis, increasing pressure on children in a more competitive environment. But social media undoubtedly plays a prominent role, as kids create carefully curated images of themselves and then live in mortal fear that the image will be discovered by others as false. As a result, some kids carry around a sense of dread all the time.

“The biggest shame is that you will be found out—we are not who we say we are, we are empty,” says Lynn-Evans.

Banning the internet is not the answer

“I love the internet,” Lynn-Evans says, listing its benefits, including making connections to others and wonderful content. But it is also a far darker place than parents realize, and Lynn-Evans worries that their willful ignorance is leading to dangerous negligence.

At a recent talk at a London school, she implored the parents to take off the filters on their phones and search for “black beauty” “erect penis” and “sex with animals.” “You will be shocked,” she said.

“You do not want to talk about this,” she says. But not talking about it abandons your child to figure it out on his/her own. “They are not teaching this in school.”

Martellozzo agrees. Parents need to prepare children for what they will inevitably see. “I know it’s an uncomfortable subject, but its better from a parent than from a stranger,” she said.

“How did it happen that there is a corridor with so many doors, and they go into another world and we can’t get them back?” asks Lynn-Evans. We don’t let our children go to pubs unsupervised at 14. Why do we let them free to roam the internet, which is likely a whole lot more dangerous?

What to do

Lynn-Evans’ greatest concern is for kids aged 11 to 16. She suggests that parents set rules early, and enforce them consistently.

  1. Meet with all the parents in your kids’ class at the start of the year and try to set some common rules—no phones after 10pm, for instance. That gives kids an out from the 24/7 social pressure, allowing them time to process whatever it is they are experiencing. And it helps them sleep.
  2. Involve schools, when possible. Commit to an hour of social-media-free homework time.
  3. Take your filters off, and watch some porn. Talk to kids about what sex does and does not look like. “We need to empower children and make them aware of who they might encounter and what they might see,” says Martellozzo.
  4. Talk about social media fights. Conflict is currency on Instagram and SnapChat, and parents are clueless. Create a non-threatening, non-judgmental place to talk about what is being said. Offer to help script potential responses to unsavory feuds among “friends” (and don’t be hurt when they diss your offer; they may take you up on it later).
  5. Do not say anything is silly, or will blow over, or does not matter. “Understand, it’s life and death to them,” Lynn-Evans says.
  6. Don’t be afraid to take the phone away. They will hate you at first, but eventually, probably be relieved. If something is going on, and they have no phone to vent into, they will eventually tell you and maybe you can help. (“I am not always saying this works,” Lynn-Evans says. “But it sometimes works.”)
  7. Be a role model: Put your own phone away.

Adolescents need a lot of guidance, Lynn-Evans says. Without it, they feel lost and unsafe. Parents can’t offer useful guidance if they don’t know what their children are actually doing.

“I am worried that parents have lost their power, and therefore respect and responsibility,” she says. “We need to educate ourselves and think of ways to do our jobs in the best possible way.”

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