For most parents, whether we realize it or not, it’s no longer a matter of guarding our kids from ever being exposed to pornography. In North America, 90 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls are exposed to pornography before the age of 18. For males, the average age of initial exposure to pornography is 12 years old.1

It’s time for us, as parents, to consider what statistics like these mean for us and our kids. What have our kids seen? How does it impact them? How can parents minimize the harm?

Throughout 2016, documentary filmmakers Jared and Michelle Brock and their team at Hope for the Sold have been helping parents understand these issues, primarily by hosting screenings of their new documentary Over 18 in churches across Canada.

After attending a screening, Wendy Kittlitz – Focus on the Family Canada’s VP of counselling2 – sat down with Michelle to discuss how parents can help their kids navigate exposure to pornography. What follows is a portion of that conversation.3

First though, we encourage you to consider hosting a screening of Over 18 at your church in 2017. Pornography is a difficult issue to discuss, but the filmmakers have done an outstanding job of tackling a tough topic in a way that is very appropriate for adults and teens age 16 and over. You can learn more about the movie and how to bring it to your community at Over18doc.com.

Michelle, you’ve talked to parents from across Canada as you’ve presented Over 18. Is there a piece of the picture that parents are missing?

Michelle: I think the violence piece is something that parents don’t understand. Some parents have this idea that when you say the word pornography, it means a stack of Playboy magazines under an uncle’s bed. That’s no longer the case. When a kid says the word pornography, they are not talking about a stack of magazines; they are talking about sexual acts and often violence online in HD video.

Another piece I don’t think parents realize is how accessible pornography is to kids. Christian parents especially have this idea that My kids are good kids and they would never do this. But that’s not really the equation. It’s not whether your kids are good or not, it’s that they are curious.

When I was a kid, I heard a word on the playground, and I knew it was sexual in nature. I can’t remember now what the word was, but I wanted to look it up, so I had to ask my dad for a dictionary. I looked the word up and it was some boring clinical description that I was so not impressed with.

Now when kids hear a word on the playground, they google it. And they don’t realize that by googling that word, they’re not going to get a description that comes from a dictionary. They’re going to be plunged into a world where it is being acted out in front of them.

Kids are hearing all kinds of words all over the place, because our culture is obsessed with sex. And instead of asking their parents what a word means, they’re going straight to the Internet and being exposed to pornography that way.

How does initial exposure to pornography impact children?

Michelle: I think it confuses them, I think it scares them and I think it isolates them. I think it has the potential to change the way that boys treat women and girls. You know, there is a moment in a kid’s life when the look in their eye changes. They lose that childlike innocence they had when the world was this wonderful place, and adults could be trusted, and there was a spark in their eye. I think porn takes away that spark. Obviously, as kids grow older, there are a lot of things that can take that away, but porn is one of those things.

The problem is, when a child is exposed to pornography, it’s a form of trauma. In our Over 18 documentary Gail Dines, a professor of sociology, explains that at the point of trauma, if you don’t deal with that trauma, you keep going back to the place where you were traumatized. So a kid who is first exposed to pornography on the Internet with sexually violent images, they will keep returning to that place of trauma because they have no way of processing that.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned while making this film is the brain science behind everything. When somebody engages with pornography, there’s a 200 percent spike of dopamine to the reward centre of the brain – a region called the nucleus accumbens. That’s the same level of reward that you get from a morphine hit.

When kids get this dopamine hit to the brain, their frontal lobe has not fully developed to be able to process that. That’s the part of your brain that is forward thinking – thinks about consequences, thinks about the future – and that doesn’t develop in boys until their early 20s. And so, when a 10-year-old is exposed to porn and gets that dopamine hit to the reward centre of the brain, he is not fully able to process it. That can potentially lead to a decade of addiction without the ability to really protect himself.

How does repeated exposure to pornography impact kids?

Michelle: Pornography exposure changes the sexual template of kids in a way that they are now turned on by sexual violence, because that has been their experience on the Internet. Later on, when they start having relationships with girlfriends and wives, that violence starts to come out. And they are disappointed when their partner doesn’t want to do what they expect is normal. That’s also why you have these cases of 16-year-old boys trying to strangle their girlfriends on their first date, thinking that that is what normal sex is.

Today there is so much pressure for girls. Martin Daubney, who appears in our film, is the former editor of Loaded magazine in the UK and he now speaks in schools about pornography. He says that one of the big questions that guys in the classrooms are concerned about is What is legal? The biggest question for girls, on the other hand, is Do I have to have porn star sex in order to be popular? You can see that even the way that boys and girls are thinking about this topic is different. For girls it’s very much tied to their self-worth and popularity. For guys it’s What can I get away with?

How can parents help their kids minimize the impact of porn?

Michelle: Having an open dialog is what will help kids process this. Most children are going to see pornography before the age of 18, so I think parents need to mourn – take a week and mourn the fact that their child will probably come across porn somewhere – and then get to work.

For many parents in the older generation, there was this idea that you have the sex talk once and then it’s done and it’s over. But that’s very different from what needs to happen now. One of the people in our film, Clay Olsen from Fight the New Drug, says that your conversation about this needs to be layered like an onion: you just keep peeling back the layers in an age-appropriate way. But it starts very young and it continues on.

With younger kids, parents can just ask a simple question like Have you ever seen anything online that’s made you feel uncomfortable? Because if your child has seen pornography and has had no words to express what they’ve seen, they still know what they felt in that moment. They know that they felt uncomfortable. That will open up the door then for them to say Oh yeah, I actually saw this. Or, I went on this website and there was this pop-up and it made me feel uncomfortable.

Also, with young kids, there’s a book called Good Pictures, Bad Pictures that’s really helpful. It’s a book that parents can read with their kids and it helps them to identify the difference between good images, like looking through a family album, verses bad images – something that could harm you on the Internet. It teaches kids how to think critically. By the end of the book your child won’t know anything new about sex itself. They’ve done a brilliant job with that.

We just did a screening [of Over 18] on Vancouver Island and one of the pastors I spoke with gave me this helpful analogy for kids:

The Internet is like a new city, a foreign city. And in this big city there are good places, like museums, restaurants, coffee shops and churches. But there are also parts of the city that are dangerous. The key when you are visiting a new city is to never go alone.

How could a parent start a discussion with a teen?

Michelle: If you have older kids, honesty and being real with your kids about your own experiences can really open a door. Kids who are older tend to crave realness and a genuine conversation. So you might start off with talking about the first time you saw porn and what that was like: how that made you feel, and how that affected you – just so your teen knows that they are not being judged for being exposed to this. You’re letting them know that Mom or Dad has had a similar experience and this is how they processed that. I think honesty and having those personal stories can be very beneficial.

Many young people are under the illusion that porn is harmless. What if your teen seems unconcerned about the danger of porn?

Michelle: I would get them to think about the difference between porn and sex in a healthy context. For example, porn is all about taking and abusing and manipulating and lusting. Sex in the context of a relationship of intimacy is about giving, serving, loving and sacrificing. Especially for older teens, I think a good question to ask them is Ultimately, what do you want? If you want porn sex, then you are eventually going to be very disappointed, because porn never loves you back.

Porn is actually really pathetic when you compare it to what we were designed for. We were designed for intimacy and connection, so if we paint that as the picture for kids, then porn becomes almost inconsequential. We were made to love and be loved, to know and be known. Porn can leave you feeling very lonely, whereas being known by another person and being known by God is so fulfilling.

Another thing I would say, for people who think they can just watch porn and it won’t affect anything else in their life, often there comes a time when you will take your pornography addiction outside of that secret place and you will take it offline. This is where you start seeing assault cases, or step-siblings taking it out on each other, or guys demanding pretty awful things of their girlfriends.

When it comes to pornography, we can’t even calculate the consequences. It’s like throwing a grenade: you don’t know where everything’s going to fly when it explodes. With porn you can’t just calculate Okay, this is going to affect my life in this way and this way, and not in this way. I think that’s something that a lot of young people are missing – that they don’t actually know the consequences.

Porn takes you further than you want to go and it keeps you there longer than you want to stay. There is a story in our documentary about a guy with a porn addiction who pulled over on the side of the road and was looking at porn on his smart phone. But he didn’t realize that he had stopped outside a school. The police came up and knocked on his window and he’s now on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life. These are consequences that we don’t talk about when it comes to porn.

Another consequence is porn-induced erectile dysfunction in young adults. That’s a topic that gets a teen guy’s attention.

What else can parents do?

Michelle: If we hit this from all angles, then I think we will have the best strategy for protection. Kids need both external filtering and internal filtering. The conversations you have with your kids, that would be internal filtering – building their ability to resist this at a heart and mind level. But you also have to have a technical side. On your computers and on your kid’s phone you need some kind of filtering technology, like Covenant Eyes or Kids Wifi.

Wendy: Yes, and we also recommend Net Nanny.


1. Source for statistics: Covenanteyes.com/pornstats/

2. Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.

3. Content has been edited for length and clarity.

The team behind the documentary Over 18 have provided a number of resources for parents at Hopeforthesold.com/resources. (Please note, however, that reference to this page does not necessarily constitute blanket endorsement by Focus on the Family Canada of all the resources offered.)

Children and teens can easily become addicted to viewing pornography. Breaking free often involves a period of depression and difficult emotions, and is not something children and teens can do alone. They will need a great deal of support from their parents. If you would like to discuss this topic with a Focus on the Family Canada counsellor, please call 1.800.661.9800 to arrange a phone consultation.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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