Teens say children should be warned about porn, as Billie Eilish reveals impact it had on her

·10-min read

Watch: Billie Eilish says porn ‘destroyed my brain’ after she began watching when she was 11

Parents are being urged to talk to children about online pornography and sexting as early as the age of eight or nine. 

The Children's Commissioner for England worked with a group of older teenagers to create a guide on how parents could best navigate tricky conversations about children’s online behaviour. 

Studies suggest half of under-11s have seen pornography, so parents need to be ready to talk to their children earlier, the panel advised.

Working with Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza, a panel of young people shared their advice on the things they wish their parents had told them before they entered the online world. 

The overriding message was that conversations needed to take place much earlier.

Dame de Souza advised parents to create a safe, judgement-free space to talk about such issues before they are exposed and it starts creating problems.

"It's better to do that before you hit a problem rather than trying to create that mood while you're dealing with one or discovering later that they hadn't felt able to tell you," she said.

"It takes a lot of bravery for a child to share their experiences of abuse or harassment. Parents and carers are telling me they want to match that bravery in getting to grips with these issues."

De Souza’s guide highlights the gap between what parents think their children are viewing and what they are actually exposed to. 

Only a quarter of parents think their child has seen pornography online, but in reality more than half of 11- to 13-year-olds have already seen porn, many came across it by accident and 62% say their viewing of porn is mostly unintentional.

“Talking to our children about this issue can be hard,” the children’s commissioner explained. “Parents tell me they sometimes feel uncomfortable, not just because of the sexualised nature of the topic, but also because their children know more about technology than they do.

“For mums, dads and carers who grew up without smartphones, this whole world can feel bewildering. But children want to talk to their parents and carers about this. We know this because they’ve told us. And that’s what is at the heart of this guidance.”

The advice for parents comes after Billie Eilish opened up about suffering nightmares after being exposed to pornography from the age of 11.

The 19-year-old singer said she is now "devastated" to reflect on her exposure to the graphic content, explaining that the experience led her to "not say no to things that were not good" when she began having sex.

"It was because I thought that's what I was supposed to be attracted to," the Grammy Award-winner told Howard Stern in an interview with SiriusXM.

The topic of pornography arose in the interview as it is referenced in a song, Male Fantasy, on her album Happier Than Ever.

“I think porn is a disgrace," she said. "I used to watch a lot of porn, to be honest. I started watching porn when I was, like, 11,” the Bad Guy singer added, saying it helped her feel as if she were cool and “one of the guys”.

Read more: What's your child really doing online? Huge rise in 'harmful' searches triggers warning

Billie Eilish has opened up about the impact watching porn at a young age had on her, pictured in December 2021. (Getty Images)
Billie Eilish has opened up about the impact watching porn at a young age had on her, pictured in December 2021. (Getty Images)

Eilish said she is now angry at herself for thinking it was OK to watch so much porn.

“The first few times I, you know, 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,” she said, adding her mother was "horrified" when she told her.

"I was an advocate and I thought I was one of the guys and would talk about it and think I was really cool for not having a problem with it and not seeing why it was bad."

The singer-songwriter went on to say she believed viewing the content while so young had "destroyed" her brain and caused her to suffer nightmares.

Eilish hinted her belief that porn could skewer wider understandings of what is normal during sex, including issues surrounding consent.

That's a view is echoed by many experts who believe that exposure to pornography at a young age can be harmful, potentially leading to poor mental health and other negative outcomes in children.

"Pornography exposure at a young age is a parental nightmare, but studies are showing that with smart phones, more and more children are seeing material that is offensive or even illegal," explains child psychologist, Dr Alison McClymont. 

Read more: Most children now have their own mobile phone by the age of seven, new research reveals

Eilish believes that porn is a 'real problem', pictured in November 2021. (Getty Images)
Eilish believes that porn is a 'real problem', pictured in November 2021. (Getty Images)

Dr McClymont agrees with many experts, including Unicef, who say pornography that portrays abusive and misogynistic acts can lead to normalisation.

"Pornography should not be normalised," explains Dr McClymont. "What we as adults may assume is porn may surprise us, statistics have shown porn nowadays has become much more violent and rarely if ever, depicts a normal sexual act. 

"Porn contributes to rising cases of sexual violence in adolescents, and the industry has been shown to be abusive, coercive and exploitative. 

"It’s great to normalise sex and to encourage discussions about it - pornography should never be normalised".

But with parents reporting a 39% increase in sharing of sexual images since January 2020 and a recent report by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) revealing more than half (51%) of 11 to 13-year-olds have seen pornography, it's clear this is a valid fear.

“Pornography is currently one click away for children of all ages in the UK, and this research supports the growing body of evidence that it is affecting the way young people understand healthy relationships, sex, body image and consent," explains David Austin, Chief Executive of the BBFC.

"The research also shows that when young children — in some cases as young as seven or eight years old — first see pornography online, it is most commonly not on purpose.”

So how should parents approach the topic of porn with their children? And what should they do if their children have seen something they shouldn't have? 

Be prepared

Though it may not be a conversation you ever wanted to have with your children, the reality is that children are much more likely to stumble across porn than when you were a child. 

"Try to set the expectation that this might be something you will come across because knowledge is power," explains Natalie Costa, children's confidence coach and founder of Power Thoughts.

"The more information we have, the more powerful and informative we can be as parents."

Read more: Adults spending more than a quarter of their day online: what effect is this having on our health?

Ask open ended questions

While it would be very easy to come at the situation from a 'this is terrible' judgmental stance, instead Costa suggests parents ask open ended questions to find out a bit more about your child's exposure.  

"What's really important is to talk to them about what they saw how they felt about what they saw," she explains. "A good way to start is 'what happened there, tell me a bit more, how did you find it? What did you see? And then asking your child, how did that make you feel? What do you think about what you saw? 

"Just coming in from a place of curiosity, because you just want to find out more." 

Costa says that will also help in terms of being able to recognise if there are certain security measures you need to put in place. "The answers that you get from children will also help to guide you in terms of how to steer the discussion." 

Watch: Instagram announces new parental controls and safety features for teen users

Explain the difference between sex and porn

Dr McClymont suggests pointing out that pornography is not a realistic depiction of sex and sexual relationships.

"It is important we convey to adolescents sex is not dirty and it should be celebrated as something that two consenting adults can enjoy together," she says. "Pornography may involve no consent, it may involve violence, and it may also involve dangerous messages about women and sex.

"Parents could turn the message around to say 'I’m sorry you saw this, but maybe we can use this as a learning opportunity - we can start thinking about ways we can respect each other and what a respectful relationship looks like'," she adds.

What to do if your child has been exposed to porn at a young age. (Getty Images)
What to do if your child has been exposed to porn at a young age. (Getty Images)

Open up a line of communication

What's most important going forward, says Costa, is allowing your children the space to come to you to talk about anything they find and for you to be that safe space to know that they're not going to be judged. 

"Let your child know that they're not in trouble and that there's no judgement," she suggests. "You want them to know that you can be that safe space for them to come to talk to you if they've got questions about it. And you will give them an honest answer."

Even if your child hasn't yet stumbled across something they shouldn't, Costa says it can't hurt to be prepared.

"It's the idea of pre-empting that this might happen and planning ahead before the time actually comes. Thinking this is how I might tackle this and these are some of the things I might say will give you as a parent a sense of control empowerment, so you don't feel too bamboozled if the situation does arise."

Start a discussion about consent and boundaries

Costa suggests talking about what consent is, what boundaries are, explaining that, depending on the age of your child, that it's normal to feel certain feelings and that's okay. 

"This will be different for different children and families, but it is about discussing when do we explore these feelings, what kind of setting and explaining that it's between people that are respectful, that love or care for each other," she explains. 

She also suggests exploring what boundaries and consent look like and what children can do if they don't feel comfortable about certain things - 'How do I stand up for myself? And who can I talk to?'

"It's about problem solving together," she adds. "They could get a WhatsApp message or a photo that they don't want to see. So you could discuss how can we avoid seeing these things? Maybe it's certain keywords that we need to adjust in our security settings or keeping devices in public places." 

Confide in someone

As well as being upsetting for your child, it can also be upsetting as a parent learning your child has stumbled across something they shouldn't have so Costa suggests finding someone close to confide in.

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