Teens and Porn: What to Doa

Let’s take a look at an always controversial topic: Teens and Porn.

I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that got me thinking about this. I am very interested in your viewpoint on this topic in general, and on what to do about it.

Early Exposure in Adolescence

It is estimated that 80% of American teens have seen online porn. Many of those kids were as young as 10 when they were first exposed. Having ready access to the internet means ready access to pornography. A 2007 study found that in the US, kids aged 10-17, 42% reported having been exposed to pornography online in the previous year. (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor)

UNICEF’s position paper, “Protection of children from the harmful impacts of pornography: Pornographic content can harm children” is very clear about the impact of pornography on children. UNICEF is alarmed by the amount of pornography online and how available it is to children.

Pornographic content can harm children. Exposure to pornography at a young age may lead to poor mental health, sexism and objectification, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes.  Among other risks, when children view pornography that portrays abusive and misogynistic acts, they may come to view such behaviour as normal and acceptable.

Dopamine and Compulsive Behavior

Adolescence often goes hand in hand with risk-taking behaviors. At this time in their lives, youth’s Dopamine/Reward system is at its peak, with kids getting hit with higher spikes of dopamine than adults. The same brain chemistry that adds appeal to drug use in some can also make teens more prone to compulsive pornography use. 

Cambridge psychiatry professor Valerie Voon did a very well controlled study on the impact of porn on the brain (2014.) Part of her findings showed that young men who reported compulsive porn habits showed the same brain activity when they were shown pornographic images as drug addicts did when shown images of drugs.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

When speaking with Howard Stern, Grammy Award winner Billie Eilish spoke out about her porn habit. She was first exposed at age 11, and during her interview with Stern, she said that she thinks porn is a disgrace. She shared that she suffered nightmares because some of the content was very violent and abusive. Eilish went on to say, “I used to watch a lot of porn, to be honest… I really think it destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn.”

What To Do

Psychologists warn us that the “just say no” approach of the 80s will be just as ineffective against teens and porn as it was against drugs. So what are parents and professionals to do?

In our high-tech world, pornography may be pervasive and easy to find, but parents are not powerless. The best first defense is to use that same tech to filter porn before kids are exposed.

Devices and apps like Circle, Canopy, and Bark connect to your Wi-Fi network or devices and block malicious sites, forbidden apps, and protect from external attacks. These devices with their subscriptions are fully customizable. Preset filters distinguish between kids, teens, and adults or you can individually choose settings by user. More than just a filter or blocker, some of these systems also allow parents to set time limits, disable devices at bedtime, set up rewards, and view history. Whether before or after exposure to porn, these and other protective apps can be a real help for families.

The other thing to do is open the lines of communication. This can be uncomfortable, but having kids who will speak honestly with you because you spoke honestly with them is worth every bit of sweat.

Parents can help by ensuring that their kids understand that their love is unconditional. This is a foundation that kids can rely on. When they see and believe that we love them, even when they make mistakes, they can be confident in us and in themselves.

What Not To Do

Don’t Shame. In the area of communication, a big don’t is shaming kids about pornography. Many kids get there by mistake or peer interaction, but even if they expose themselves to porn out of curiosity, shame is never helpful. 

When we shame, we ensure that communication gets blocked in the future. Adolescents don’t want to disappoint the adults in their lives. If they decide to abstain and then slip back, shame will prevent them from talking with their parents about it honestly.

Unlike guilt, which looks at choices and behaviors and says, “That was a mistake and I’m going to do better in the future.” Shame latches on and doesn’t want to let go. Shame says, “I’m worthless, and there’s no way to fix me.”

Shame produces self-loathing, which leads to more and more problem behaviors. Addiction, violence, aggression, self-harm, suicide, and more all flourish in the shadows of shame.

Don’t overcorrect. Pornography gives adults and teens alike an unrealistic view of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. We must take care to not swing to the opposite extreme and treat sexuality like it is inherently bad. We cannot correct the wrong messages with different wrong messages. Parents and professionals can begin to dislodge unrealistic views of sexuality by offering a healthy view of sexuality.

That’s Great, But…

Those tips, while good and helpful, are far from a comprehensive approach to teens and pornography. I really want to open up a discussion here with all of you.

I welcome learning how you, as clinicians, handle this subject with your clients.

I also want to learn about how you, as parents, are helping your children. How have you talked to them? What steps have you taken to keep porn and other internet problems out of reach? 

Please, leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experiences with us. Together, we can learn better ways to deal with this topic.

Worried About Your Son or Daughter?

If you are worried about your teen and want some help, please do not hesitate to reach out. Sometimes having an accountability coach or an older peer trained in mentoring can be a great solution; other times, your loved one may need a higher level of care. My team and I are just a phone call away. We want to hear your story and help you navigate a solution that helps your teen and your family flourish.