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How to talk to young people about pornography and sexting

Hester Phillips

22 February 2024

Pornography and sexting are a reality for many young people. So how should sexual healthcare practitioners approach these issues?

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Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour. Credit: iStock/ Tassii

Recently published advice in the Journal of Paediatric Health has outlined strategies for talking to young people about pornography and sexting to encourage safe and healthy relationships.  

Why is this study about? 

How to improve sexual healthcare for young people by including information and education about pornography and sexting.  

Why is this study important? 

Many young people watch or have seen pornography. And many young people sext. (This means sending sexual images or videos of themselves to someone, normally a partner.) It is normal for young people to be curious about sex, including pornography. But pornography does not show sex in a realistic way, and some pornography shows degrading or aggressive behaviour. As a result, it can cause young people to have unrealistic and unhealthy expectations about sex.  

Sexting can be a positive experience. But it can also lead to negative outcomes like embarrassment, public shaming and cyberbullying. Especially if young people are pressured into sexting or the person they send images to shares them with others.  

But despite the growing need, most sexual health education does not cover pornography or sexting.  

What does the study say? 

There is a need for sexual health practitioners to understand that young people are likely to have seen pornography and will know about (or engage in) sexting. Both these issues should be included in sexual health education alongside information about healthy relationships, healthy sexual relationships, sexuality and consent.  

There is a need to help young people develop ‘porn literacy’. This means understanding the difference between pornography and real-life sex. Educating young people about pornography should focus on things like what pornography is, what sex is like in real life and how it is different to pornography, how watching pornography can affect body image, and the importance of consent and safe sex. 

Talking to young people about sexting can be controversial. But young people need to learn about the risks of sexting, the difference between consensual and non-consensual sexting, and how to deal with pressure from partners or peers to sext. This will help young people to be fully informed if they encounter a situation where sexting might happen.  

If a young person chooses to sext, it is better for them to know how to do it safely. Some strategies include not sharing images or video with faces in or other identifiable features. Another is to clearly communicate that the image or video must not to be shared outside of the relationship and should be deleted if the relationship ends.  

Sexual healthcare practitioners should be providing sex-positive support. This means approaching sex as a natural experience that can be positive and healthy. It means providing non-judgmental support and advice that encourages shame-free, open and honest discussions about sex. 

What does this mean for sexual health services? 

Health practitioners are in a good position to support young people to learn about healthy sexual behaviours in the digital age, and the reality and risks of pornography and sexting. But this can only be achieved by creating safe, trusting relationships with young people. Young people need to feel able to discuss their experiences, ask questions and express concerns about pornography, sexting and sex without being judged. 

If it is done in a supportive, non-judgemental way, it can also be effective to screen young people in relation to pornography and sexting. This involves assessing what type of content a young person is viewing and how often, and their reasons for doing so. This can help practitioners provide the right level of support and advice. 

Many parents do not feel confident or prepared to discuss sex, pornography and sexting with their children. Healthcare providers can help parents by talking to them about how to have these kinds of conversations. You can find lots of discussion starters on Be in the KNOW. The Journal of Paediatric Health also provides some useful tools and resources.  

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