When I was a kid, seeing porn meant coming across a stash of dirty magazines in a friend’s dad’s shed. Today it means typing “little bo peep” in the search engine for an elementary school project—with surprising results.
It’s all too easy to stumble upon porn. The average age of first exposure to porn is 11, when most children come across it by accident. By age 15 and 16, 80 per cent of teens have sought it out multiple times. The question, then, is not “how can we prevent our kids from seeing porn?”, but instead, “what are we going to do to equip them to stand against the onslaught?”
Common sense precautions should be a part of every modern parent’s arsenal: filters on the computer and on devices that protect against pornographic websites, or send an e-mail if such sites are accessed; an “open door” policy for kids where bedroom doors stay open except when they’re changing; and computers kept in a central place.
But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this is sufficient. One mom recently wrote to me about her boys. After walking through a full-blown porn addiction with their older son, who is now a youth pastor, she and her husband installed filters and controls on everything in the home. Yet their 15-year-old still found a way around it. “We thought we were safe,” she told me. “And yet he still accessed it and became addicted.”
Internet controls can’t do the job for you. While part of good parenting is protecting kids as much as we can, smart kids can always find a way around our rules and controls. It’s far more important, then, to give them reasons to steer clear of porn.
Give Reasons, Not Just Rules
Quite simply, we have to start real and open conversations with our kids about sex. We need to share with them both the beauty and passion of sex the way God intended, and the way that porn warps that, while contributing to abuse, sex trafficking, and exploitation. Too often we portray porn as simply sinful, which, of course, it is. But it’s not only sinful. It’s also very damaging, both to the people participating and to those watching. If kids understand the potential damage that porn can cause to their sexuality, then they would also have another way to fight against it.
For boys, that involves teaching about what happens to the sexual arousal process when you watch porn. When you’re aroused, your brain produces pleasure chemicals, like dopamine. When porn viewing is paired with masturbation, as it almost always is, you add another layer to the process, since now the hormones involved with sexual release are also paired with porn. When this occurs with teens who are first starting to have sexual feelings, the connection between sexual arousal and pornography is even easier to cement.
If the brain associates arousal with pornography, then it’s very difficult to become aroused with a living, breathing person—especially one’s spouse. Porn use among teens is highly correlated with later instances of erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and even low male libido. Since most kids use porn because they’re interested in sex, giving them the lowdown on how porn impacts their future marriages can help them fight that temptation.
These warnings need to be given to our daughters, too. We often think of porn as being a male problem, but 28 per cent of porn users are now female. And while most girls may not be as tempted by what we normally think of as porn, many more are tempted by erotica.
Too much visual pornography can cause severe body issues in girls, and can make it harder for them to see sex as something intimate. Erotica poses an additional danger: girls start to live their sexuality through fantasy. Erotica can pair fantasy and sexual response in girls, so that, when they’re married, in order to achieve arousal they have to “dissociate”, or fantasize. That can make a truly intimate marriage that much more difficult to attain.
Just as cigarette packages come with warnings, so we need to tell our kids the warnings about porn, too. We’re not being spoilsports and we’re not being uptight religious parents when we say porn is bad. We’re concerned about their future, and we want them to have great marriages.
For Christine and Hank’s son Nate, after midnight was the prime time that he was tempted to access porn. He was lying in bed by himself, the rest of the house was asleep, and there was no risk of being caught.
Hank talked to his son about the spiritual ramifications of porn, and about the effects of porn on his future relationships. But he and his wife also did something practical: they turned off the wi-fi at 11 p.m. every night. And all the phones and devices like iPads went in a central charger in the kitchen, so that people didn’t have devices with data in the bedroom.
They identified the triggers, and they reduced them.
This works best when kids see you doing it, too. The restrictions aren’t about keeping kids away from porn; they’re about a Christian discipline which you’re teaching so that you all steer clear of things that can derail your spiritual life, your relationships, and your marriage. In this case, if kids grow up thinking, “we’re not on devices at night,” then they can carry this habit into their adult life. They will be more likely to head to bed with their spouse at a decent hour, and spend time connecting rather than surfing the internet or watching Netflix.
What are your child’s trigger points? Common ones include boredom, stress, or being home alone. Talk to your teen and ask, “when do you find the temptation hardest to resist?” If stress is the issue, for instance, then let’s brainstorm other things to do when you’re stressed, like pumping weights, or going for a jog, or journaling. Even keep a list up on the fridge or in your bedroom, saying, “If I’m stressed, I can….” with five or six different options. You’re teaching your child to beware of potential triggers, and hopefully that habit will carry them forward into their adulthood.
React With Grace
Early into his battle with porn, Nate walked into Kate and Hank’s bedroom at one in the morning, and shamefully whispered to his dad, “I fell.” His dad climbed out of bed, embraced him, and prayed with him. That week he helped Nate start an accountability group with his youth pastor and five of his friends, where they began discussing the negative effects of porn and praying for one another.
That’s a much better approach than Chris’ dad took with him. When Chris, now 28, struggled with porn in his teen years, he asked his father to help. His father lectured him on sin, judgment, and giving in to the devil. Chris never told him about any struggles again, and over his teen years fell more and more deeply into shame. Be the kind of house where grace rules, and where kids are free to share struggles, and then you can help equip them to handle that temptation later.
After all, temptation doesn’t fade as soon as one hits 18. Our job as parents, then, is not only to protect our kids from seeing porn, but also to help them to fight against it when they have even more opportunities to access it. That means being honest about our own temptations, opening up about healthy sexuality, and teaching key spiritual disciplines, including accountability. It isn’t easy. It takes vulnerability as parents. But if we want to raise kids who can fight against our overwhelmingly pornographic culture, we really have no other choice.