In October of this year (2015) I was scrolling through the newsfeed on Facebook and I saw an article. The title excited me and I remember thinking “this must be a joke!” This particular article was a USA Today Article entitled “Playboy to Stop Publishing Nude Photos.” It took me a minute to register what I was reading. I am a mental health counselor that works with people who are struggling with unwanted compulsions towards pornography. From my perspective porn use is at an all time high and only getting worse. At first glance this article caused me to wonder if perhaps a cultural shift was happening and things were changing in that regard. Although, that seemed unlikely, I had a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Mr. Hefner had recognized the problems he was causing people and had decided to change his tone. As I read the article I soon began to realize that my hopes were too good to be true. The USA Today article reported that “The onslaught of Internet pornography has made the nude images in Playboy “passé,” Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive, told the New York Times. “That battle has been fought and won,” Flanders told the newspaper. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free.”
I now understood. This was not an indication of a change in attitude, a shift in culture, or a gain in the fight against pornography. This was the result of, as playboy put it, “that battle has been fought and won” What battle? The battle to have pornography become “passé” to become a normal everyday thing in our lives.
Whether we like it or not pornography is now very common and part of our lives and in regards to our kids, the question is no longer “ How do I protect them from seeing porn?” but “How do I limit their exposure and how do I protect them from the effects of that exposure?” A study released in 2008 surveyed 560 college students. In this study 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to pornography before the age of 18. This number has likely increased in the past 8 years. The reality is that our kids will see pornography, so how do we keep them safe from it’s effects. I don’t know that there is any absolute answer to that question, but I came up with 5 things that I believe can greatly reduce the negative effects of pornography on children and adolescents.
Talk About Sex
That uncomfortable looming topic that every parent, from before the time they are parents, dread having to talk to their kids about. Sex is only an uncomfortable topic because we culturally have made it an uncomfortable topic. As Americans we have developed a culture in which sex is a shameful thing. This is an even more common problem in religious circles. Most parents will acknowledge that sex is healthy and beautiful when shared between a husband and wife, but that is not the message our kids are getting. THe message we send through our comfort level, and openness about the topic is that sex is secretive, dirty, wrong, scary, embarrassing, shameful, and something not to be discussed. If we are uncomfortable to talk with our kids about sex then our kids will teach themselves and nowadays the internet provides more than a little information on the topic, but does not generally present it in a way that most parents are comfortable with, and that is the first place kids go to answer questions.
As a counselor who works with men having struggles with their sexual impulses and pornography use, I have discovered that many individual’s first introduction to pornography was very innocent. Many individuals report that they were accidentally exposed and found it intriguing and looked further, others were simply curious about sex. What it is and how it is done? What can I expect with puberty? Are my sexual feelings and desires normal? Whether explicit or implicit the message was received that mom and dad are not comfortable talking about this so they pick their favorite search engine and start learning. Even a simple question like “What is sex?” Will quickly lead to extremely sexually explicit material.
The solution? We need to force ourselves as parents to talk to our kids about sex. We need to be able to talk about it confidently and maturely and get comfortable with words like penis, erection, vagina, clitoris, intercourse, condom, pornography, etc. We don’t necessarily need to discuss everything but we should be comfortable talking about everything from oral sex, to homosexuality. We as parents need to create an environment where a child feels comfortable asking any questions about sex because they know they will not be judged. This decreases experimentation, and decreases the use of porn use for sexual education. We as parents need to get rid of the idea that talking about sex will cause my kids to engage in it. The exact opposite is true. A teenager is going to be thinking about sex whether you bring it up or not, but let yourself be the teacher rather than friends or the porn industry.
Understand Current Media
It doesn’t matter if you were a teenager 5 years ago or 60 years ago, the media that you had as a teenager has changed drastically. For today’s teenagers media is a very integral part of their lives, they love it and they know it better than you. Therefore one of your child’s greatest defences against pornography is you being a few steps ahead of them in the technology department. You need to know the media they know and use the media they use. You need to be researching the media they use and know what all the apps on their phones are for. The truth is that unless you have a “dumb phone” it is almost impossible to limit all access to pornography on a phone. An app that looks innocent might not be. An app that is innocent might not stay that way. There is a way to access pornography through almost any app on your child’s phone and if they want it, they will figure out how to get it. Knowing devices and technology better than your child will help you to be able to keep them safe.
The fuel of addiction is shame. Nothing will create more problems when it comes to addictive or compulsive behavior than shame. Shame is often used as a method of education and or punishment. Often as parents we innocently confuse shame with guilt. Guilt is helpful and healing, but shame is destructive. So what’s the difference? Guilt is the idea that “I made a mistake and THAT WAS BAD.” Shame is “I made a mistake and therefore I AM BAD” Shame is the idea that I am a bad (Throw any negative adjective in there) person, and is an extremely damaging emotion and thought. As parents it is easy to unintentionally shame a child when we are only meaning to give guidance. When discussing sex, or addressing pornography use it is important to make sure the child understands their actions do not equal who they are. Letting them know that while porn is bad you do not see them as a “bad person.” This is harder than it sounds. A comment as innocent as “I am disappointed in you” can leave the child or teen with the message of “I am a disappointment.” Instant shame! A better way to say this is “I am disappointed in your choice.” Followed by sincere love, and a genuine desire to understand what they are feeling and needing from you.
This can be difficult. Notice I didn’t say “stop exposure.” the reality is that you cannot stop the exposure. Whether you like it or not their is a very good chance that your child will be exposed to pornography and that it will happen before the age of 13. However; as parents there is a lot we can do to limit that exposure. We obviously can’t control the internet access at friends houses, and on friends devices, and we can’t completely eliminate the ability to access it at home without complete and total lockdown, which you might feel you need to do. However; we can greatly limit access, in our own homes, which will decrease the chance that your child will develop a dependency or compulsion towards pornography. Things like accountability programs, limited access to apps, internet filters etc. are all ways to limit the access.
Lastly and I would say the best way to protect your children against pornography is to stay involved in their lives. Know their friends and their friend’s parents. Know where they are, get them involved in extracurricular activities and support them in those endeavors. Talk with them! I cannot emphasis the importance of this. Talk with them, with an open mind, validate their concerns and worries and frustrations even if, from your adult perspective, you don’t understand what the big deal is. The more they feel listened to, validated, unjudged, and un-shamed by you the more you will know about what they are doing and the more they will open up to you. Often times the use of pornography is a result of feeling a lack of intimate connection with people in our lives. All humans need intimate connection, they need to feel loved, valued, and seen. If we don’t have that we will search for that in any way we can and unfortunately pornography is an easy way to inauthentically get that. Although inauthentic, it feels better than loneliness.
To recap. Your kids will be exposed to pornography but the question is how much they will be exposed and how that exposure will affect them. Much of that is up to you as a lot of it comes down to you being confident enough to talk to your kids about hard things, confronting them on things they might not want to talk about, not shaming them but listening to them, and being involved in their lives.