Q: My son recently shared with me that nearly everyone he knows at his middle school has pornography on their phone. I was appalled. Is this true, and if so, how bad is that for our kids?
It’s true. And it’s bad.
In 2016, the Barna Group released a study indicating that 49 percent of children (not just boys: all children) ages 13 to 17 view pornography at least once a month. 30 percent said they did so less often. Only 21 percent said they had never viewed it. Porn websites account for more monthly traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. A Boston University study found that teens frequently watch porn in school, particularly on smartphones.
The American College of Pediatricians calls the availability and use of pornography “ubiquitous.” It is so prevalent that in a study of youth internet use, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 70 percent of kids aged 15-17 had accessed pornography online without even meaning to. And that was in 2001, when things were just getting started.
Many parents are totally ignorant when it comes to what their children are consuming online. A 2016 Indiana University study showed that half as many parents thought their teen-aged children had seen porn as had actually watched it.
Adults who grew up on HBO and dirty magazines may be too quick to dismiss the problem as pubescent curiosity. The pornography in today’s online world is far different than what was found in yesterday’s Playboy. For one, it is much more violent. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) revealed that 88 percent of pornographic videos showed verbal or physical aggression.
That may sound bad, but since it’s just a video, is it really harming anyone? A recent New York Times report exposed the negative effects porn has on kids. Boys, for example, say that the images get inside their head, and they find themselves thinking about them all the time. They look at girls and wonder if they are like the girls they see in videos. I’ve seen a surge in the number of boys enticing girls to make pornographic videos for them as well as the number of girls willing to comply.
Those problems are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, the American College of Pediatricians issued a study cataloging the destructive impact of porn on children, both boys and girls. It includes “increased rates of depression, anxiety, acting out and violent behavior, younger age of sexual debut, sexual promiscuity, increased risk of teen pregnancy, and a distorted view of relationships between men and women.” The study also showed that porn definitively results in an increased likelihood of divorce, which is harmful to children in more profound ways than we usually care to admit.
Perhaps the most alarming research comes from Dr. Alexandra Katehakis, clinical director of the Los Angeles Center for Healthy Sex. She states that when adolescent males view pornography, their brain chemistry can form a malignant view of sex where “relationships mean nothing and immediate sexual gratification means everything.” As a result, “the adolescent viewer’s brain is being wired to expect that sex and relationships are separate from one another.”
She notes that while viewing porn, the teen-aged brain is “being shaped around a sexual experience that is isolating, visceral, and completely void of any love or compassion.” Thus a boy’s brain becomes structured to expect the same dopamine rush from real sexual experiences that he receives from porn. When later in life he realizes that his actual experience fails to bring the same rush, he may seek riskier experiences that can lead to “a lifetime of sexual pathology.”
This, in fact, is what we are seeing. A New York University study found that the more porn men watched, the more likely they were to achieve arousal only through porn. In other words, they grew to prefer porn to actual physical intimacy.
What can parents do? Limit (if not eliminate) screen time, access to the internet, and social media apps like Snapchat where pornography is often shared. Kids often view porn when parents think they’re playing video games or doing homework, so keep the computer in an open room where it can be seen by everyone.
Talk to your kids candidly about the consequences of pornography, and instead of being harsh and judgmental if they admit they are struggling with it, be understanding and try to truly help them. A few years ago an organization called Fight the New Drug posted billboards that said “Porn Kills Love.” That message − that pornography is the enemy of true love that builds families and can stand the test of time − is one that every child needs to hear.
The cultural solution seems simple: just ban it. But since that’s a non-starter in a world that is already inured, maybe we should try something similar to Britain by putting all porn on a special section of the internet, say a “.xxx” instead of a “.com,” that can only be accessed by adults.
Whatever we do, we can’t just continue to ignore a problem that is hurting children and pulling apart families. There may not be a solution that is fool-proof, but doing anything is better than doing nothing and proving ourselves fools.