Awkward conversation: How to talk to your kids about online pornography

John Van Arnam, founder of The Third Talk

No parent wants to talk about pornography with their child. No child wants to talk about porn with their parents. These are facts.

Yet John Van Arnam of Black Mountain has taken the Sisyphean task of making sure these conversations occur. Children’s mental and physical health depend on it, he says.

Van Arnam worked in online sales, processing credit card payments early in his career. It was there he learned about the big business of online pornography and the difficulty in corralling its spread to underage users. Van Arnam is the founder of The Third Talk, a limited liability company he started in 2013 that became a nonprofit in 2017. It’s focused on facilitating these conversations through coaching and speaking at schools, churches and parent organizations. He has spoken at several charter schools and private schools in Asheville.

Most parents know that their kids can find online porn, Van Arnam says. They just don’t realize how easy it is to access, how extreme the porn can be and how young the kids accessing it actually are. “We have to understand the world our kids are living in — not the world we wished they lived in,” he explains.

Xpress spoke with Van Arnam about how children are accessing adult content, sex positivity and how parents can provide a safe space for the kids to talk about tricky topics.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity. 

I think we can assume that savvy teenagers know how to skirt filters or restrictions in order to access adult content. But you say research shows kids first see porn between age 8 and 14. So how are these younger kids able to get to it? 

Little kids are able to access pornography on any Internet-connected device — Xboxes, Kindles, PlayStations, laptops, cellphones. Our kids have access to internet pornography — period, end of story. I have talked to parents whose 6-year-old is watching [porn] and not just once or twice. We, as adults, need to understand our kids are watching porn. We give them the phone. We pay the Verizon bill. That phone is in their back pocket in the house, out of the house, on the bus, at the school, at a sleepover.

Why are kids seeking out adult content, though? When I was a kid, coming across anything sexual on TV or in a movie, for me, was like, “Eww!” 

They may watch [porn] and say “Eww!” but their brain is releasing an exorbitant amount of dopamine. And then the brain says to them “More dopamine, please!” Now, if you get your dopamine by kicking a soccer ball into a goal, you might become a good soccer player. If you get your dopamine by winning a spelling bee or  figuring out long math equations, you might be an engineer. But if you get your dopamine by watching internet pornography, you may become a good pornography watcher. And that leads to aggression, depression, loneliness.

Can you elaborate on that? 

[The dopamine response from watching porn] physically changes a young person’s brain at a time when their brain is particularly malleable. If this was happening to 30-year-olds, we wouldn’t be as worried because their brains are developed. But this is happening to 11-year-olds whose brains are in a critical and incredibly impressionable time. …  I can’t imagine what it’s like going through puberty having 100 million pornography videos in your back pocket.

This is not like [kids are watching] two people who are expressing kindness to each other. This is extreme content specifically designed to create clicks for the producer [who is] like ‘How extreme can we get?’ The challenge is that when an 11-year-old types in “what do girls look like” what comes up is so extreme and so out there and so far from reality. And then, of course, his brain releases dopamine.

How is consuming adult content as children affecting their friendships and future relationships?

What happens is when you’re watching this pornography at such young ages, you begin to see people as sex objects. … [A boy] might meet a wonderful girl as a sophomore in high school, and think, “Oh, she’d be great if she had a bigger butt or a smaller butt or bigger boobs or smaller boobs.” And what’s going to happen is that he’ll miss out on the quirky way she eats her ice cream, and he’ll miss out on her funny sense of humor. … He’ll miss all the elements that are important to set into muscle memory for healthy, long-term relationships down the road.

How do you talk about this subject without being anti-sex ed or not being sex positive?  

Do I sound anti-sex ed or anti-sex positive to you?

No, but I think there might be people who believe in abstinence-only sex education who might think your message complements theirs. 

I have begun to discuss healthy sexuality when I am requested to, but The Third Talk is not about sex ed. It’s about the prevention of exposure to internet pornography for our young people. And I will say, maybe a little flippantly, I don’t think porn has anything to do with sex. I don’t think porn has anything to do with sex the same way “Fast and Furious” movies don’t have anything to do with driving. … I am all about healthy sex. It’s one of the greatest things in the world. Pornography has nothing to do with healthy sex. My take is nope, just don’t watch pornography. Not one video is safe.

Some people might say, “Oh, kids have always tried to sneak a peek at Playboy” or “kids have always tried to watch ‘Real Sex’” on HBO after their parents went to bed!” Do you encounter parents who listen to your presentations about online porn and ask what’s the harm? 

I don’t. It’s not that people don’t know it’s a problem — it’s that they won’t say it out loud. If parents said, “We should all be talking about this!” then we could end this challenge very quickly. It’s just that parents don’t want to talk about it.

Your work advises parents to be a “safe space” for their children to talk openly about consuming porn. What does being a safe space mean, exactly?  

[Imagine] a kid coming up to a mom or a dad and saying, “I’ve been watching a lot of pornography, it’s weird and I can’t seem to stop.” What parents do now is slam their computer down, take their [kids’] laptop, take their phone and say “What will the neighbors think? You’re grounded, young man!” [So the child thinks] “I’m definitely not going to bring that up!”

We have to have the same emotion, or the same response, as if our kids had been in a car accident or a boat wreck — “Oh, my gosh, honey, I love you so much.” Because without that, our children literally do not have any place to go. They can’t go to their teachers. Teachers can’t address this topic because parents don’t want them to. So parents need to not only just listen, but they also need to guard their facial expressions and their verbalizations like Fort Knox.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Awkward conversation: How to talk to your kids about online pornography

  1. Carl Mumpower

    Very nicely done. Thank you for taking on this tough, timely, and controversial subject – for kids and parents.

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