With the internet at our fingertips, pornographic content is only a few clicks away — even for young children. Studies suggest that this type of content encourages sexual objectification and has been linked to harmful consequences like sexual aggression. Unsurprisingly, many parents adopt strategies to try to restrict their child’s exposure to pornography.
Study authors Yaniv Efrati and Meyran Boniel-Nissim note that these pornography-related parenting strategies are often ineffective and may even be counterproductive. For example, setting specific rules to limit a child’s media use may paradoxically increase their use of media.
“As a parent of children, I asked myself what is the best way to talk about porn with my children? I have seen that many parents are afraid, stressed and even anxious about the fact that their child has been exposed to porn and they feel that they do not know what to do,” said study author Yaniv Efrati, the founder and CEO of The Israeli Center for Healthy Sexuality and a senior lecturer at Beit-Berl College.
The researchers wanted to explore whether parental stress, anxiety, or depression would lead parents to choose maladaptive strategies to regulate their child’s exposure to pornography. Efrati and Boniel-Nissim reasoned that parental psychopathology should influence parenting style, which should then lead to the adoption of strategies that are more or less effective for regulating children’s pornography use.
The study involved 1,070 Jewish-Israeli parents of children between the ages of 10 and 14. The parents completed questionnaires that assessed their parenting style, the strategies they used to regulate their child’s exposure to pornography, and their depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms.
The researchers found that parental stress and anxiety were associated with a greater likelihood of adopting an authoritarian parenting style — a form of parenting characterized by an emphasis on obedience and strict rule setting. In turn, authoritarian parenting was associated with more restrictive mediation strategies — such as setting rules to regulate their child’s exposure to pornography.
Parents with stress or anxiety were also less likely to adopt an authoritative parenting style — a parenting style that places high expectations on children but with the addition of warmth and compromise. Authoritative parents were less likely to use restrictive mediation or negative active mediation strategies (i.e., methods that reject or criticize a child’s behavior).
“The position or premise that we parents need to adopt is — relaxed parenting that encourages open communication and active mediation,” Efrati said.
The researchers note that restrictive mediation strategies have been found to be ineffective and to even backfire by increasing undesired behavior. Keeping this in mind, the current findings suggest that psychopathology leads parents toward less favorable strategies for regulating their child’s exposure to pornography, which may actually increase the problematic behaviors parents are trying to avoid. Heightened anxiety may lead parents to channel their distress into an authoritarian parenting style that ultimately works against their goals.
“It is important for parents to internalize that they are the ‘responsible adults’ for the children and if they do not talk to their children, their children will try to check on sexuality or porn in networks in an irresponsible and even risky ways,” Efrati said. “Open communication on sexuality or pornography, parental presence and active and positive parental mediation is very important for the child’s sexual development. Healthy sexuality for a healthy society!”
The authors acknowledge that their study did not explore how the parents’ use of mediation strategies affected their child’s behavior surrounding pornography. Future studies that examine the interplay between parents’ mediation strategies and children’s outcomes over time would provide insight into this relationship.
“As parents we are in conflict between the need to protect our children from watching uncontrolled content (for example, porn) and on the other hand – the development of autonomy and independence,” Efrati explained. “We need to be careful that stress and anxiety do not drive us as parents and paradoxically only cause children to perceive their sexuality as something forbidden or dirty (under the guise of protecting our child) — which can impair the development of sexuality to speak healthily and enjoyably. Future studies should examine in a longitudinal study the significance of the type of mediation on the perception of sexuality among children who watching porn.”
The study, “Parents’ Psychopathology Promotes the Adoption of Ineffective Pornography-Related Parenting Mediation Strategies”, was authored by Yaniv Efrati and Meyran Boniel-Nissim.