Equipping your child to resist pornographyWritten by Catherine Wilson
Is it true that a pre-pubescent child can get addicted to pornography? Regrettably, the answer is yes. Yet parents often struggle to understand how this is even possible.
When children accidentally encounter porn online for the first time, they’re typically shocked and upset by what they see. That much is certainly understandable. It’s what happens next that dumbfounds parents.
Many young kids – even if they were repulsed or traumatized by the pornographic images they saw – will feel an urge to seek out pornography again.
The question is, why? It’s not hard to imagine why a teen might be tempted. But why would Internet porn exert any pull on a child who hasn’t even reached puberty – a child who has yet to experience sexual attraction and sexual impulses?
The reasons are primarily biological and developmental, and not at all reflective of the child’s moral character. Paradoxically, porn is a powerful influencer precisely because it exploits perfectly normal, healthy drives in a child (or youth) at a highly vulnerable stage in their development.
Very briefly, children will re-visit porn because of their
Kids are innately curious, and internally compelled to learn more about anything they don’t understand; a sudden new awareness of porn will ignite a sudden new curiosity about it. And not all kids have an instinctive sense, when they first see it, that looking at porn might be wrong.
Exposure to pornography, even very brief exposure, can prematurely awaken a child sexually. Having felt the intoxicating sensations of their sexual drive revving up, they want to repeat the experience, even though they don’t understand what’s happening.
For both children and teens who’ve been exposed, porn quickly becomes difficult to resist for three reasons:
1 A sexual experience fuelled by
porn spurs the release of extraordinarily
of craving-inducing neurochemicals in
Dopamine – the main neurochemical involved – is normally released in the body during sex. (Dopamine is an important driver of sexual desire, and motivates essential survival behaviours too, like eating, drinking and moving out of the cold.) Porn, however, is an unnaturally effective reinforcer of sexual desire in that it triggers a veritable tsunami of dopamine that acts on the “reward centre” of the brain (the nucleus accumbens). In short, porn makes the impulse to look at porn again feel more like an imperative.
2 Kids and teens have an immature
prefrontal cortex, the “rational
centre” of the brain that is meant to hold impulses and desires in check.
This rational centre in the brain – the region responsible for reasoning, decision-making and evaluating consequences of actions – doesn’t function at full capacity until youth reach their early twenties. In contrast, the emotional centre of the brain – where desires, impulses and the sexual drive arise – functions just fine in kids and youth. For children and teens, that means their “Do it because it feels good” impulse is much stronger than the cautionary impulse “I should pause and think about whether this is really a good idea.” (And remember, when porn is the temptation, the “Do it because it feels good” impulse is also getting a turbo boost from all that extra dopamine.)
3 Adolescents very quickly
discover that masturbation to
porn provides temporary but effective
distraction from stress, emotional
pain and even simple boredom.
On their own, if no one warns them, kids don’t recognize the danger of relying on such an unhealthy coping strategy and the high risk of developing a pornography addiction (which can take hold in just a few weeks).
Kids and youth – and adults too – also have the power of
memory to contend with. A child may immediately reject porn when they see it by
turning the phone face down, closing the laptop or clicking the X on the
screen, but those images will pop up in their memory again and again to test
their resolve. And pornographic images can have remarkable staying power.
Freeing kids from memories of what they saw
As the founder of Protect Young Minds, Kristen Jenson is passionate about teaching parents how to protect their kids from porn.
“When your child first has access to the Internet, that’s the age you should start warning them about pornography,” says Jenson. “Every child deserves to be warned about the dangers of pornography and to have the skills to reject it.”1
Having filters on devices is important, Jenson stresses, but the most important filter is a child’s internal filter. Kids need to be taught how to slam the door on porn themselves – not just when they see it online, but whenever the images reappear in their mind.
To that end, Jenson partnered with Gail Poyner to write Good Pictures, Bad Pictures, a picture book for parents to read to children ages 7 to 11. (Jenson also recently released Good Pictures, Bad Pictures Jr. for 3- to 6-year-olds.)
Good Pictures, Bad Pictures teaches kids to react immediately when they encounter porn by following five simple steps, starting with closing their eyes, looking away, and turning off the computer. Jenson describes the full five steps as:
Close your eyes
Always tell a trusted adult
Name it when you see it
Distract yourself [when the images return to mind]
Order your thinking brain to be the boss [i.e. the brain’s “rational centre” – the prefrontal cortex]
Parents can make a big difference to the success of porn-proofing their kids by coaching kids in how to distract themselves. “We can’t help kids un-see what they saw, but we can help them minimize it,” says Jenson.
“You can’t just say, ‘Don’t think about it’; you have to give them something else to think about. . . . When they come to you and tell you they’ve seen something bad, praise them. Usually they’ll be upset, so you have work through those feelings, but then you have to help them. You can ask, ‘What fun thing are you going to think about instead?’ ”
The best tool for distraction, says Jenson, is to encourage your child to re-live, in their mind’s eye, a past experience that was really exhilarating and fun – perhaps re-living a rollercoaster ride or pretending they’re mountain biking – and throwing their imagination into high gear to fill in the details. “It could also be a song or a poem, but it needs to be something that they are excited about,” says Jenson. (In her book, Good Pictures, Bad Pictures, Jenson also includes reciting a prayer as an option.)
“It takes about 10 times,” says Jenson. “I haven’t done an official scientific study on that, but you have to teach your child to do it over and over again. What you’re doing in fact . . . is you are actually developing another neural pathway away from that pornographic image.”
Recognizing emotional states that lead to temptation
Jenson’s distraction technique is helpful for older kids as
well, but tweens are also ready for some more advanced training.
And here, the authors behind Good Pictures, Bad Pictures have more help to offer. In 2017 co-author and porn-addiction therapist Gail Poyner released a guide for parents called Pandora’s Box Is Open Now What Do I Do?
Poyner’s book (which is a secular resource) helps parents coach adolescents in powering up their rational, decision-making skills to override their impulse to seek out porn.
At the same time though, Poyner emphasizes another angle that’s key to understanding and resisting the attraction of porn: it’s often emotional needs that drive kids to seek out porn, rather than sexual impulses.
“Many people feel drawn to porn when they feel bored, stressed, lonely or upset,” writes Poyner. “We are finding this to be true for children, as well. The list can stretch pretty long, but helping a child understand some of the most common reasons they turn to porn can help them deal with these triggers on an individual level.”
Understanding patterns – what time of day and where a child happens to be when they’re tempted to view porn – can be really helpful too. Right after school is a vulnerable time of day for many kids, a time when they’re often alone and mulling over hurts and stresses.
As well as teaching kids to monitor their emotional state, Poyner urges parents to help kids build and take ownership of their personal action plan for managing triggering emotions. That means choosing their own healthy alternatives (rather than resorting to porn for emotional relief.)
Feeling bored? Could you shoot some hoops? What else is really engaging for you?
Mad at a friend? Discouraged? Who would be a safe person to talk to about it?
What can powerfully help kids is having a go-to confidant and coach available by phone who can talk them through moments of vulnerability – someone who can offer encouragement and help them deal with difficult feelings. Parents are a natural fit for that role – particularly dads for sons – but it could also be a trusted uncle or aunt, or older sibling. Jenson’s website at Protectyoungminds.org includes an excellent article by John Fort discussing this type of mentoring.
Whether your child has been exposed to pornography or not, purity and strength in this area is something to be praying about regularly for your child. And as you do, also ask the Holy Spirit to make you alert to any signs that your child might have accessed porn. Don’t assume – since your child hasn’t said anything – that all is well. As explained in a companion article to this one, confessing to viewing porn can be extremely difficult for a child.
In closing, here are a few more tips to help remove the temptation for kids to view porn:
- Don’t leave your child wondering about sex. Provide sex education
appropriate to their age as well as books
they can refer to, and urge them to come to you rather than going online to
- Keep reigniting discussions about porn, and sexuality in
general, with your child so you can deal with any new questions, temptations or
concerns as new situations arise. Keep encouraging your child to resist porn.
- Don’t give your child an Internet-enabled phone until they
are at least 11 years old and you’re confident they can handle the
- Common times for kids to be tempted to view porn are at
nighttime, after school and during school vacations. Don’t let your child keep their phone or computer in their room
overnight. And be alert for unusual nighttime behaviour, for example, if
you find your child on the family computer at 1 A.M. claiming that they can’t
- Gail Poyner warns that she treats many kids who were first introduced
to porn at a sleepover. Consider teaching your child a code word they can text
you from a friend’s house if there’s something going on that they want no part
of. Then invent a face-saving excuse to show up and pick them up, or text them a
reason to come home urgently.
Filters are really helpful but friends can bring porn into your
home already downloaded onto their phone. Poyner suggests having friends put
phones in a basket when they come over, then hand them back when they leave.
- Teach kids scripts that help them confidently refuse a
friend’s invitation to view porn. For example, teach them to say something like,
I don't want to watch that. That's not cool.
- Make sure your child sees you rejecting oversexualized messages – turning off inappropriate TV shows and movies, for example. Teach your family to decode false messages in media. Ask, What is this saying about women? About manliness? About violence? About power? Do you agree or disagree with this message?
1 All quotes from Kristen Jenson are from her online interview during The Mom Conference 2017 (Conferenceformoms.com).
Read our related article Starting a conversation about porn with your child
For more help with porn-proofing younger children, see the excellent website Protectyoungminds.org.
For help with talking to your adolescent, see When Your Child Is Looking at Porn plus other free guides for parents from Covenant Eyes at Covenanteyes.com.
* Reference to the individuals quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations. Referrals to websites not produced by Focus on the Family Canada are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily constitute an endorsement of the sites' content.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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