Now on to today's post. I debated whether or not to post this. Normally, I try to keep things fairly cheerful and light around here. This is a sensitive, highly-charged subject and I'm not really anxious to start a flap. I learned from the response to my book, The Road Show (which dealt with porn addiction) that we do not have a cultural consensus about whether porn is good, neutral, or a serious problem. Pornography is a hot-button subject because it touches on people's views about morality, religion, sexuality, politics and other very fraught topics. If, after reading this post, you want to disagree with me or another commenter, that's fine. But please be civil.
I've been watching and observing kids now for 25 years now, and I've seen some things in the last few years that worry me and I think we, as parents and teachers, give this some more attention.
I ask you to put aside your preconceived notions for a few minutes. I'm not going to argue about the larger issues here. I'm not talking about what adults do, nor am I proposing legislation. I'm not even talking about morality. For now, let's think about porn and how it might impact adolescents and what parents should know and do.
Some parents I know seem to be totally unaware or unconcerned about their child's potential to access porn. Others I know are uneasy with it, have the sense that it's wrong, or at least distasteful--something that isn't really a good idea. But, don't have a strong feeling about why
it's not a good idea
Of course, there are any number of reasons people might object--from religious grounds to more secular ones.
Essentially I want to make the non-religious case for why I think parents ought to be concerned about porn. Far, far, far more concerned than most parents seem to be. I should note that I am not the only person raising this alarm. A recent article on CNN by two psychologists made this case and got a lot of press. You can read it here.
My case is grounded in what I have observed about child development. Let me begin with a few general points about some of the things that teens are dealing with at this time in their lives.
To begin with, most teens are working out patterns of relating to people that will be with them for the rest of their lives. This is a huge part of adolescence and the social skills and patterns set now will be their default setting for the rest of their lives.
Most teens are also defining their identities--who they see themselves as being, who they want to become, and what they want to do. This includes their sexual identities.
They are starting to learn, for the most part, that good things in life come with work. They begin to understand that if they want a good part in the play or a good spot on the team or good grades, they have to make some effort. This is something that many teens struggle with. They know this logically, but it is not something that is habitual or instinctive yet.
Most adolescents think the world revolves around them. They are incredibly egocentric. They have a difficult time controlling their impulses. Delayed gratification is something they are starting to understand in concept, but it is not an easy lesson and takes years and years and a great deal of experience.
They struggle, by and large, to deal with tumultuous, hormone-driven emotions and desires. They have to learn to use intellect and reason to control their immediate wants. This is true as many of them start to think about eating more healthy foods, about exercising, about controlling their tempers and so on.
It seems to me that in every way listed, porn is going to send them exactly the wrong message at exactly the wrong time and is going to actually get in the way, either overtly or in more subtle ways, of their healthy development.
We need to understand that most kids have been exposed to pornographic images on the web by the time they are 13, with some reporting it as young as 10. I read all kinds of statistics about how many kids have been exposed to porn and saw anywhere between 42% to 90%. I imagine this is the kind of thing that is difficult to track accurately--but if you have kids, chances are pretty good that they have been exposed to porn at some point. From conversations I've heard over the years, if they have a smartphone, or friends with smartphones, I'd say that it's more likely than not.Even if your child has not accessed it, the chances are high that their peers have, which means that they will probably have heard about it.
I would add that this is not a problem for boys only. While it is certainly more prevalent among them, there seems to be a rise in girls accessing porn as well. (I say that based on my own observation, things I hear from other teachers and parents, and things I hear students discussing, not on the basis of any empirical evidence.) I'm using the male pronoun "he" in this because boys are the most prevalent users, but we need to give some careful thought to girls and how they are involved.
One of the things I've learned as a teacher is that children know far, far more about this kind of thing than parents (and often teachers) would ever imagine. I think most parents would be truly shocked if they knew what kinds of things their children have heard at school, in the locker room, at parties, and so on.
So, why is this a big deal?
It's probably a good point here to acknowledge that there have always been magazines and pictures that cater to this impulse. But the internet has made this kind of stuff far, far more accessible that it ever has been before. There are no limits now--both in terms of quantity and extremity of content. In fact some researchers posit that online porn is different because there are no limits. It is endless and on-demand actually ends up causing a sense of gorging that can eventually rewire the brain and prevent a man from being able to desire or engage in normal physical relations.
I also think that the ability to access porn has allowed kids to get it at younger and younger ages--ages at which they are probably going to be more susceptible to being more influenced by what they see.
Consider all of the developmental benchmarks I mentioned earlier--the things that adolescents are struggling to learn. And then consider how porn might effect those.
Think about how it effects a boy who is figuring out social relationships to be accessing porn. How is that inevitably going to make him think about girls? Will he value them as friends and companions? Will he see them as peers? Will he even be able to see them as people, or will he think of them as objects? Will he able to interact with them in a normal way--as a co-worker or friend?
Here's another question. Will he even want to go hang out with friends or be with families? What is more exciting? Sitting and looking at porn in his room is going to have a lot more dopamine-induced excitement than going out with people and learning how to socialize. Why would he ever want to go do normal things we've typically done--date and dance and hang-out?
Think of the fact that porn conforms to an adolescent's demands. It is what and where and how he wants it. That reason, more than perhaps any other, is problematic. At this most formative time in their lives, adolescents involved with porn will learn that they can have everything exactly the way they want it. That is not a recipe for healthy relationships.
In addition, adolescents are not good at setting boundaries. I suppose one could argue that a responsible adult can view porn in moderation, like social drinking. I happen to disagree with that, but I can grant the point. But teenagers are not like that. They do not self-regulate or set boundaries--especially as young adolescents--the age they are when they are first exposed to porn. They will not generally say, "Okay, time to do homework. I need to turn the porn off now."
It is well documented that porn has an effect of desensitizing those who view it. They need greater doses of increasingly hard-core stuff to get the same excitement. If someone starts viewing this at 12 (or younger) that means by the time he's 18 he may be immersed in truly ugly and offensive things. He may also lose the ability to have a normal, loving relationship with a real woman. There is an article that discusses some recent research here.
Now, let's assume that I am a blithering idiot and that porn is no big deal. Let's assume that there will be no deleterious effects at all. The kid slavers over his iPhone under his covers during puberty and then grows up and lead a happy, normal life.
I don't buy that, but I'll just grant it for the sake of argument. Assuming that's true, let me ask you this: Is anyone going to make a serious case that porn is important? That it is so critical to healthy development that not having access to it will cause harm?
So, worst case scenario, a kid doesn't consume porn as an adolescent. What's he or she lost? I would argue, nothing. They've actually probably gained a few hours of time to be with family and friends or do homework or get some exercise.
The point is this: I think there are lots of reasons to avoid porn, serious reasons with major implications. But if I'm wrong, and it's not all that harmful, then nothing important is lost.
The next question becomes: what can a parent do about it? There are no easy answers. You can get various software and apps that monitor your child's phone use, filters for home computers, and so on. I think these are all logical steps. But they are incomplete at best. In today's world, a kid who wants to access porn is going to be able to find a way.
I think this is where teaching comes in. Talking. Telling them it's wrong, explaining why it's harmful. Telling them you expect them not to get involved in it. Following up. Spot-checking. All the stuff that parents have historically done. It might also mean limiting some access for a time. I don't know. I don't have all the answers, or even very many.
But I do know it starts with a conversation--with parents who make it clear that this is not okay behavior and then work to help protect their kids. It starts with parents talking to other parents and supporting each other. Establishing some boundaries that will not be subject to change by conventional wisdom, pop culture, or simple lack of vigilance.