Why Is My Child Searching Up Inappropriate Things?
So, Your 10-Year-Old Is Googling "Boobs" — Now What?
It's easy to hope your child will have an innocent mind forever. But the reality is, at some point, they're probably going to seek out information that's slightly . . . racier than you'd prefer. And as much as every parent dreads having to ask themselves, "Why is my child searching up inappropriate things?," and worries about the effects of inappropriate content to minors, chances are, you did the same thing. Who among us can say we never turned to Google to learn about the facts of life in a little more detail than our school or parents provided when we were a kid?
"Riverdale" star Lili Reinhart even joked about this in a TikTok that went viral. "My mom asking 10 year old me why 'boobs' was in our family computer search history," she wrote over a video of herself saying, "Uh… ." In the caption, Reinhart hilariously wrote, "Blamed it on my sister's friend."
Plenty of people related in the comments. "Mine was literally 'girls kissing' and I said it was an ad," one person shared. "I was caught searching up 'Willy' when I was 9 and I tried to make the excuse that I just forgot 'Wonka' on the end," another said.
Sarah, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, can also relate — but as the parent doing the catching, not the kid doing the looking. She discovered her son had googled "sex" on his iPad and got some racy results.
"I was helping him look something up for school and got annoyed because he had all of these windows on his browser open," she says. "I was randomly clicking out of a bunch of them when the results for 'sex' caught my eye."
Sarah, who'd previously had the sex talk with her son, says it was a "totally awkward" moment, but she decided to simply ask her son why he had looked up the word. After a long pause, he had a straightforward response: he was curious.
"I didn't want to shame him for it, and I get that he's curious, but I also don't want him looking up porn in his spare time — he's 10," she says. Sarah and her husband ended up talking to their son about age-appropriate internet usage and reiterated that he can ask them questions about anything — including sex. "I definitely keep a closer eye on his iPad usage from now on," she adds.
Why Is My Child Searching Up Inappropriate Things?
It's uncomfortable to think about your child seeking out information that seems too old for them. But experts say it happens, and it's mostly normal. "It's been my experience that this is most common between the ages of 10 and 11," says John Mayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of "Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life."
There are a few factors that can influence when your child will start to seek out more adult content, including what their peers are doing and saying, what they're stumbling upon on the internet, what their siblings are talking about, and even habits in your household, Dr. Mayer says. "There are also common gender differences: girls often become curious earlier than boys," he adds.
That's why "it's often helpful to start to discuss sex with children as early as 8 or 9 years old, prior to the start of puberty," says Hillary Ammon, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness.
And really, you should be talking to your kids about things like body parts before then, she says — frankly, directly, and without cutesy euphemisms.
"We wouldn't say 'down there' when discussing a child's foot. It's important that we use the terms 'penis' and 'vagina' when discussing sex organs," Ammon says. Using the correct terms for these body parts and normalizing discussion around them "can decrease feelings of shame or discomfort for a child when discussing them — and eventually sex — later on," she explains.
But no matter how (age-appropriately) communicative you try to be about sex, your kid still might turn to the internet for some additional research. So if you notice your child has been looking up sex-related words, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that this is most likely natural. Then pull out these expert tips for how to address their questions in a nonjudgmental and useful way — and how to safeguard their internet usage going forward.
How to Talk to Your Child About Their Search History
If you discover your child has been seeking sexual information online, Dr. Mayer recommends that you address it ASAP. "Time in a child's world is different than for adults," he says. "The longer you wait to address this, the more you lose control of this behavior — and lose a golden opportunity to parent your child."
But Dr. Mayer also says your attitude is "critical" when you bring this up. "Don't be punitive or look worried, too serious, or too casual," he says, warning against trying to talk like you think kids their age might. "They know you're none of those, and this will turn off your rapport with your child," Dr. Mayer says. Instead: "Have a smile, and emotionally be supportive and understanding," he suggests.
In other words: you want to be as honest, understanding, and loving as possible. If you're struggling with that, it may be worth taking a few minutes before sitting down with your kid to remind yourself that this behavior is pretty common and natural — your child hasn't done anything wrong, and neither have you.
When you're ready to start talking, Dr. Mayer suggests you get "right to the point" about what you discovered. Say something like, "I happen to see on your browsing history you clicked on [name the site, image, article, film]. It's normal to be curious about [what they looked at]. So I'd like to talk to you about this."
Then, invite your child to talk. You can ask why they clicked on the site or searched the term, but don't accept "I don't know" or shoulder shrugs in response. "When they avoid talking, I use this: 'I know this is embarrassing to talk about, but I need you to say something about your interest,'" he says.
While your child may try to avoid talking about the subject, they may also have questions, which can be tough to handle as well. If they do ask a question about sex or the body, Ammon recommends answering accurately and frankly without being overly graphic.
For example, if a 7- or 8-year-old asks how a baby is made, you might say that it happens when "an egg and a sperm meet." For children older than that, you can talk more about the mechanics of sex, she says. "By their early adolescent years, it may be helpful to discuss additional details about sex, noting the importance of intimacy and consent," Ammon says.
Don't be afraid to be honest if you don't know exactly how to answer a question; you can also promise to get more info and get back to your child later. (More about how to talk to kids about sex here.) You can also consider giving them an alternate resource, like a trustworthy book about bodies and reproduction.
How to Set Consequences For Inappropriate Internet Use
Seeing that your kid has looked up something inappropriate is a good time to make sure you've put proper safety precautions in place around their internet usage. That includes using a tool like Google's SafeSearch settings to filter pornographic or other explicit results from searches or turning on Apple's Content & Privacy Restrictions section on their iPad, Dr. Mayer says. Many tablets have something similar.
If you're adding parental controls to their devices that weren't there before, Ammon suggests telling your child you're doing it. "It doesn't have to be a secret," Ammon says. "You can have open discourse with your child or teen about why these measures are in place."
This is also a good time to talk about safe internet usage, even if you've already had that conversation, says Melissa Santos, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children's. "The more we can incorporate conversations about appropriate internet behavior — things you might see, things that you might be curious to look up — the more it becomes a conversation and the more it becomes something you can check in with them on," she says.
"Some porn websites can have violent sexual content, or sometimes even illegal content," Ammon adds. "Certain social media apps may have predators. It's important to educate your child on these risks when explaining your safety measures."
You don't have to shame your child for what they looked up, but you should impress upon them that the information they find online can be inaccurate at best and upsetting or scary at worst — so if they're curious about something, they'd be better off coming to you.
When Inappropriate Internet Searches Can Be a Red Flag
Some behaviors should be taken as warning signs, Dr. Mayer says. Take note if:
- The searches are frequent, and your child seems to be obsessed with looking at graphic photos.
- It leads to inappropriate or frequent statements about sex in the house, in front of other people, or at school.
- The things they're looking at seem to be getting more graphic or exploitative.
- They're acting out, such as taking part in inappropriate touching, play, exploration, or language with and around their peers or siblings.
At a basic level, these behaviors can be a sign that they've become obsessive about or fixated on the content they're consuming, Dr. Mayer says.
Another potential red flag? "When kids are spending more time on the internet looking up content at the expense of other things — school, school work, sleep, and things they usually enjoy," Dr. Santos says. If all your child wants to do is be online, it could be a sign that they're struggling with depression or anxiety, she says.
What to do next really depends on your child, she says. To start, you'll likely want to use parental controls to help restrict or monitor your kid's internet usage. It's also crucial to rethink how screens are used in your home, Dr. Santos says.
"Some parents have found it helpful to not have computers in rooms, preferring instead to have them in living rooms or other locations where the child can still use the computer but it is a bit easier to monitor," she says. "Some families have found it helpful to have children turn in their devices at X time and parents keep them in their rooms charging overnight so that kids aren't on it late at night."
Again, proper communication around why and how you're changing the rules around device use is key, Ammon says. "When we make something seem 'bad' to look at, sometimes that makes kids want to look at it more," Dr. Santos notes.
But it can be hard to figure out what's causing these behaviors. "Sometimes the assumption is that looking up content like this is a sign of abuse, but it could indicate many things. For some, it eases stress; for some, they want to be like other kids," Dr. Santos says. That's why she suggests speaking with a professional if your child continues to look up content even after they've been told not to, if they seem really focused on it, or if you just need extra support.
Dr. Santos says you can reach out to your child's pediatrician or a counselor at school, for instance: "Whoever you feel best knows your child." While it can be a difficult issue to talk about, in the age of the internet, it's more common than you'd think — and having a community of support can make a huge difference.