Online pornography is being served up to kids at alarming levels. Here’s how to help your child navigate and avoid inappropriate adult content.

It was an uncomfortable moment, and it’s still a difficult story for me to tell. But I vividly remember when porn came looking for my son. In just sixth grade and starting to use social media, he came to ask me about all of the adult content that he was suddenly seeing on Twitter. He had opened an account only weeks before, and was now inundated with notifications from so-called porn bots, which are spam accounts that encourage users to click on links that will take them to pornographic content.

It was disheartening, to say the least, that my son was already exposed to this kind of content at such an early age. But his experience is, unfortunately, not unique. As Gail Dines, a scholar and activist who founded the non-profit Culture Reframed points out in a recent article in the Boston Globe, porn is not just a Twitter issue. It is also infiltrating mainstream social media sites such as Snapchat and Instagram, and our children are using these sites and apps for hours a day. They are almost certainly bound to be exposed to it at some point.

As Dines explains it, porn is often hidden behind hashtags and emojis on Instagram. Words that might seem innocent enough but are used as a “secret code to tag and search for particular types of porn.”

“If teens type a specific fruit or vegetable emoji into the search bar, a list of links pops up to images ranging from women barely clothed to women in sexual bondage restraints,” said Dines in the article. “Those images lead directly to pornographic accounts, which are used by many porn performers to build their fan bases.”

Snapchat has a no adult content policy but porn accounts are often linked to a different, innocuous “teaser” Snapchat accounts. From these, companies then facilitate links from Snapchat to porn sites, and kids can find themselves there with just a few clicks.

While the idea of our children seeing porn might make us uncomfortable, Dines and other health advocates note the implications are actually even more serious for today’s child. Contemporary pornography is much more graphic and can have negative social, emotional, and cognitive effects on teens, noted Dines.

Digital safety expert Katie Greer of KL Greer Consulting warns adult content is exposing kids to unhealthy misconceptions around sex and consent.

“This is not the porn of our years, where kids would try to sneak a magazine or two under their beds,” said Greer. “This is live, free, and can be found and viewed super discreetly from any device. The fact that it’s all over the place, even when kids aren’t intentionally looking for it, is something that parents really need to proactively address.”

Where is a concerned parent to start? While there are some tips for minimizing porn on some sites, and filters that can help keep younger kids away from adult content, a conversation is still the more effective tool. Both Dines and Greer advise talking to your kids, the earlier the better, to get an idea of what they have seen and to offer them guidance for what they may be run across in the future.

“It’s never a fun topic to discuss, but this is far beyond ‘the talk,’” said Greer. And as our kids are using devices younger and younger, it’s possible they stumble upon it without even intending. That being said, we need to have conversations early and often about appropriateness and boundaries. At a young age we can explain that there are plenty of things on the Internet that may not be appropriate for them, and should they see something that doesn’t look quite appropriate, that they can feel safe coming to us about it.”

Some suggested questions and topics you can use in your conversation might include:

Have you ever seen anything that made you feel uncomfortable? What are some things that you think are appropriate/inappropriate when it comes to stuff we see in apps or online? How can we work together to have the privilege of using devices, but also make it safe for everyone in our house?

It’s also important to reassure kids that if they do view inappropriate content, that they should not be afraid that a parent will punish or shame them. Children should feel comfortable knowing they can view you as a trusted ally that they can go to with anything.

“Whether they mean to or not is not really the point, we have access to the world at our fingertips - and no filter or app will change that,” said Greer. “So, being proactive, open and honest with our kids about this early is our best weapon.”

Dines’ Culture Reframed also recently launched a free online program that helps parents of tweens learn how to talk with children about online pornography and you can find more information on the Culture Reframed website.

Joan Goodchild, aka the CyberSavvy Mom, is a veteran writer and editor and mom of two living in Central Massachusetts. Got a question or a topic you would like to see covered here? Reach out at cybersavvymom@yahoo.com or follow Cybersavvy Mom on Facebook. Read more news and information on staying safe, secure and civil online at cybersavvymom.com