As we said goodbye to 2021, and all the challenges that came with this year, once again a celebrity emerged on the scene with strong opinions. But this time, it wasn’t about climate change, vaccination, masking, or any other “hot button” issue. It was about pornography.
Interviewed on SiriusXM, Billie Eillish spoke out about the “devastating” impact she has experienced from first viewing abusive pornography at the age of 11. During the discussion, she described how watching pornography at a young age altered her sexual views and practices, opening her to activities that were detrimental to her body image and mental health. Now 20 years of age, she sees pornography as a “disgrace” and something that “destroyed” her brain and caused her to have nightmares and significant insecurities about herself and her sexuality. While previously she had acted as if it was cool and wasn’t an issue, she has now reversed her opinions on the matter in recognizing the scourge that pornography has become.
Today in this country, profits from pornography out gross those from ABC, CBS, and NBC combined; estimates are that pornography is a 12 billion dollar industry. The average young adult males access pornography 50 times a week. Since 2016, 17 states have introduced resolutions declaring pornography as a public health crisis.
As parents and people in general, we are faced with a monumental challenge in protecting our youth (and each other) from pornography exposure that can not only result in physical, social, psychological, and spiritual hardships, but also in preventing addiction developing over the long-term. Whereas in previous decades, the major threats were print, video, and live options for skewed sexuality, the internet and mobile devices has made accessing pornography (intentionally or unintentionally) just a click away. As a child psychologist, I am increasingly working with younger and younger youth who acknowledge that porn has negatively impacted their lives.
As I discuss various ways to reduce the risk of pornography, it is imperative to first address what I often hear from well-intentioned, but exasperated parents on this topic. It goes something like this: “I really don’t want my son or daughter to be exposed to illicit material, but it is probably going to happen anyway (so why exhaust the efforts and safeguards to prevent the inevitable?)” Although understandable, my response is this. While the chances of our youth being exposed to pornography at some point in their lives is high, there is a huge difference in the area of neurological and psychological development that is predicated on the frequency, intensity, and duration by which they are exposed. Said another way, incidental exposure at different times, while still sad and potentially harmful, has nowhere near the risk potential as repeated, intense exposure to pornography when it comes to long-term outcomes. Without knowing all the details, I daresay that Eilish’s early exposure to pornography was probably not a few incidental viewings, but more likely systematic witnessing over many years. It is critical that all of us parents recognize this difference.
Having said this, I am going to briefly focus on what I feel are 3 major categories of safeguards when it comes to pornography: technical, environmental, and cognitive/modeling.
Technical: We begin with the technical safeguards, which although they are no substitute for the other protections mentioned, they do provide certain options to reduce the risk, at least while youth remain in our home. The first involve safeguards for phone and internet usage, which are increasingly available (often for free) to parents. As an example, Verizon Smart Family allows parents to turn off internet capabilities and even texting/calls even when Wi-Fi is available along with having a content filter. Covenant Eyes is one internet filter that can block illicit sites, monitor devices for searches, and send reports to parents of activity. While not perfect, they do provide a reasonable safeguard as a starter.
Beyond these safeguards, it is critical that parents never give passwords to their offspring, which might allow the purchase of illicit content. Legislatively, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPRA) largely forbids children under 13 for giving out private information and many social media sites do not allow pre-teen to use their platforms; parents should be aware and armed with legalities designed to protect youth. Parents should also know of apps and websites where kids are increasingly headed, some of which (like the infamous calculator app) allow them to bury explicit material on their devices. Furthermore, if parents aren’t aware of Proxy servers and the dark web, both of which have no legitimate use for any human being, it is critical to educate yourself about awful, yet real threats that exist on the internet. Finally, it should be noted that the biggest threat of all for pornography exposure involves giving youth devices who are simply not intellectually and neurologically prepared for this massive responsibility.
Environmental: Much of the pornography exposure that occurs is not random by nature. Although incidental viewing can happen at any time, youth who spend time with devices outside of a public place are at increased risk. In our own homes, having a device, especially a personal phone, in the bedroom at night has been shown as a tempting factor for porn usage. As I have heard more than one teen tell me, it was this particular scenario by which he consumed most of the pornographic material. Parents who are serious about limiting porn usage also must be serious about where devices are allowed to go in their home.
Furthermore, it has also become clear that “soft porn” usage is a gateway to more deleterious, deviant exposure. By “soft porn”, I am referencing TV, movie, and internet video/pictures that clearly depict individuals and scenes that are immodest, exploitative, and misogynist in nature. Just like early alcohol usage, youth who are allowed by parents to view more of this content, especially without accompanying guidance and conversation, are more likely to seek out pornography in their future. When youth see that parents implicitly sanction this material, they are more likely to see pornography as acceptable content.
Cognitive: Finally, and maybe most importantly, are the ways that we cultivate our youth’s attitudes about the human body and sexuality. For starters, it is critical that as our youth grow up, the body and sexuality are both seen as beautiful gifts given respect and awe by which they deserve. Failure to acknowledge and celebrate this reality sets the stage for a skewed view by which they are both seen as commodities to be consumed, and not blessings to be preserved. As a priest once said years ago in speaking to a group of high school boys, when you see a beautiful woman, give God thanks for her presence instead of trying to imagine her in a sexualized way.
Yet beyond promoting a reverential attitude, it is just as important that our youth recognize how we as their parents can provide beauty for each other. I am convinced that children who see their parents who value being agents of beauty and attraction for each other, thus providing maybe the best defense against the seeking out of pornography, will be less likely to seek out unhealthy sources of pleasure, and not just of a sexual sort.
Very often, as spouses and significant others grow older together, various factors create a situation by which it seems they put less emphasis in being a healthy agent of attraction for each other, in ways that often existed early in their relationship. While understandable for many reasons, it unintentionally sends a message to all (including kids) that pleasure and beauty are increasingly unavailable in this relationship, and must be sought in other ways. This is not a justification for pornographic seeking, but I do believe it is an important factor to consider. In the end, there is little substitute for kids seeing their parents still attracted and excited for each other as they, too, begin to consider their own attractions and romantic interest. Pornography is a complicated, serious issue that that we simply can’t ignore. Sadly, it distorts the reality that beauty is one of the greatest gifts ever given. Which means that how we treat it is of the greatest importance, too.
Here’s hoping you will further address specific neurological and psychological harms of porn as it relates to the early sexualization of children. It’s a topic that needs more experts weighing in, sharing their experiences in real life with patients. With the advent of the smartphone and younger, more frequent exposure to porn, there’s sure to be tangible fallout that can be weighed, measured, and analyzed, so to speak.