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(Michelle Thompson for The Globe and Mail)
(Michelle Thompson for The Globe and Mail)

Anthony E. Wolf

Uh oh, my son is surfing porn sites. What do I do? Add to ...

Dear Dr. Wolf,

My barely adolescent son is a good kid. But a few months ago, I searched the history of my son's computer and found several visits to a hardcore porn site. I blocked it with Windows Security. I did not talk to him (I know, probably bad parenting). Yesterday, I went on the history and found several visits to other porn sites. I am not sure what to do. I don't want to punish him for something that might be normal and natural. I remember wanting to look at magazines like Hustler and Penthouse when I was young.

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Undecided Dad

Dear Undecided Dad,

Parents have always been ambivalent about teen boys and pornography.

"It's a part of adolescence," they seem to think. "It's what teenage boys do: They sneak looks at dirty pictures. If they're interested in sex - and what teen boy isn't? - they're going to be very interested in pornography. Who does it harm? Okay, I'm not comfortable just letting him watch it, saying it's okay. So I just kind of pretend it's not there. But I'm not comfortable with that either. I don't know what else to do."

Teen boys' interest in pornography is certainly normal, but it is not wholly innocent. It's not just a happy, harmless part of sexual development. And nowadays, teens can access a vast universe of pornography online. Much of this imagery is very explicit. Some of it strays far outside more "normal" sexual activity. Some of it involves physical violence.

There are two major problems when it comes to teens and pornography.

Porn can be strong stuff. Your teen is being exposed to strong sexual imagery at a definitely vulnerable stage in his life when he is just beginning to experience his own sexuality. And what he's seeing can become too much of an end in itself. He enjoys it and wants to watch it too much. Teens will have plenty of opportunity when they're older to spend their waking life watching pornographic images if they so choose. They don't need that now.

The other major concern is much porn presents some pretty unhelpful models of human relationships. "Good," when it comes to guys, is all about sexual prowess. Period.

Far worse is the attitude toward the treatment of women. The content can be not only extreme, but degrading and dehumanizing. They aren't real people with feelings, but cartoons who seem to go along with the most exploitive, even hurtful roles. A teen, just coming into his own sexuality, doesn't really have a clue.

So what can you do?

If you do not want your child viewing pornography, you can try to eliminate access. Some families have computers only in public parts of the home. You can also go online and look up "parent controls" for guidelines. Just know that controls, such as porn filters, are not foolproof. Adult websites and tech-savvy teens are always busily at work trying to get around them.

The reality is that you cannot completely screen pornography out of your teen's life. But you can talk to him.

It may feel awkward. But if their only sources of information about pornography are the media, their friends and the websites they're visiting, you want to have your input too. How? Start right in. "I want to talk about pornography." They may run and hide in the closet. Try again another day. And another day. If you persist enough, eventually you'll get to deliver your message.

Talk about what you and he think is depicted in what he's been watching. The more your teen talks, the better. Can he put into words how the women are treated? Can he put into words how the guys are depicted? And how do the women who are porn actors actually feel about being in the videos? Are they happy to be in the videos? Who are they? Has he considered whether they are being taken advantage of by the companies that produce the videos? That is, get him to view the videos as being about actual real people with actual real feelings. (You should also make clear, in this discussion, that sexual feelings are not bad - that sexuality is a nice, healthy part of life.)

It may take some of the fun out of the pornography for him. But is that bad?

Will all of this discourage him from seeking out pornography? Probably not. But it may make him more thoughtful about it.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.

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