Gabe was in eighth grade when his mom discovered he’d been watching porn on the computer. “I routinely checked his browser history because I assumed he was probably watching it,” says Gabe’s mother, Greta.

Greta told her son she saw that he’d been watching. “He was so embarrassed, he literally hung his head in shame,” she says. “I told him that it was completely fine and natural to be curious about sex, but I warned him that looking on the web for porn sites would take him places he wouldn’t want to go. I also reminded him he had a little brother who was not, under any circumstances, to see it.”

With porn sites readily available on all digital devices and social media use soaring, it is inevitable that most kids will be exposed to porn at some point. While boys make up the bulk of teens watching porn, girls watch it too, though they don’t always seek it out the way boys do. In one survey, 93 percent of male college students and 62 percent of female students said they saw online porn before they were 18.

Talking to your child about watching porn can be awkward and something you’d rather avoid, but it’s a critical conversation to have. Kids can get seriously misleading information about sexual relationships from watching it. Here are some tips on how to address the topic:

Be direct

The likelihood of your child saying, “Hey, mom, I watch porn,” is zero to nil, points out Alexandra Hamlet, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. That means it’s up to you to bring it up. Ideally, you’ll be able to have a conversation before you think your child has seen porn, but this isn’t always possible.

“It doesn’t have to be a one-time monologue,” says Dr. Hamlet, “but something you bring up casually over time. Keep the conversations short so your child doesn’t become uncomfortable and shut it down.”

Dave Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, acknowledges that parents might worry that bringing up the subject could give kids who aren’t watching porn the idea to do so. “We’re not telling parents to authorize watching porn, any more than talking about drinking is giving them permission to drink,” he says.

“It’s just being realistic and saying, ‘Listen, I know you may see porn at some point, here’s what you need to know.’ You can also tell them that if they have questions about sex, they can talk to you or another trusted adult.”

Finally, when you talk to your son or daughter, keep in mind that the goal is to let them know that ideas they might get from watching porn can be damaging when it comes to real sex. It’s not to shame or moralize.

Delay exposure

The average age when kids lose their virginity is between 15 and 17. With kids as young as eight being given laptops and smart phones, they are therefore likely to see porn long before they actually have sex.

The first priority is to delay seeing porn as long as possible, says Dr. Anderson. As teenage brains are still developing, kids are better able to handle potentially disturbing material and make good judgments about what they see in later adolescence.

Controlling what children see every step of the way is not realistic, especially because they are probably more tech-savvy than their parents and may be able to override parental controls. But using parental controls and limiting screen time might help.

With younger kids, for example, you might limit screen use to a computer in the living room and not allow them to use a phone or iPad in their room. It’s also critical that parents and older siblings understand that if they are watching any type of porn, they must be vigilant about clearing their browser.

Explain that porn is not real sex

One  2016 survey of a group of teens aged 16 to 17 found that they got most of their information about sex from porn, which can lead to a lot of confusion and unhealthy messages.

Typically, a porn video revolves around a flimsy “plot” or premise that quickly leads to sex.

“The focus is usually exclusively on male pleasure and the sex is often rough and includes many different positions,” says Dr. Anderson. Furthermore, the woman climaxes quickly, suggesting that her partner doesn’t have to do much of anything to make that happen. “There’s no lead-up, no intimacy.”

Male porn actors are well-muscled, well-endowed, and have an unrealistic amount of stamina. The female characters are unusually slender and curvaceous and willing to have sex of any kind at any time. Research shows that women and men can both be negatively impacted from viewing porn, Dr. Hamlet notes, because it affects their self-perception and self-esteem. Girls may worry about the size of their breasts or their pubic hair. Boys may worry that their penis is too small, and that they can’t “last” long enough.

Boys may also assume that girls are always ready to have sex, which can lead to issues with consent in a real-life situation. The misleading takeaway for girls, says Dr. Anderson,  can be that they have to be willing to do anything. In one survey, 44 percent of teens interviewed said they have been asked to do something their partner saw in a porn video.

Teen boys and girls both need to know that women don’t climax right away, nor do they respond only to a man who is unusually well-endowed or able to have sex indefinitely. “The message should be that physical attraction is only one element of a relationship and that finding someone whom you trust, and who loves you and understands you is the most important thing,” says Dr. Anderson.

Know when help is warranted

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, porn can lead to unhealthy behaviors in children. Clues that could indicate a problem:

  • Your teenager seems to be avoiding making connections and developing romantic relationships in real life.
  • Your child seems to spend an inordinate amount of time watching porn, to the point where it’s interfering with other areas of his life.
  • A very young child talks about porn and seems very disturbed or stressed. “There are situations where an older person shows a young child porn against their will,” says Dr. Anderson. “This can suggest that the person is ‘grooming’ the child for sexual abuse by testing his reactions to the imagery.”

If you notice any of these behaviors in your child, you may want to consider seeking the help of a therapist to help figure out what’s behind them.