Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist who has spent his career helping families and schools foster good character in young people. He is education professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland and founding director of its Center for the 4th and 5th Rs—Respect and Responsibility ( www.cortland.edu/character ). His books for parents and teachers include Raising Good Children, Educating for Character, and, with his wife Judy, a book for teens, Sex, Love, and You: Making the Right Decision. Last October, he spoke on the topic “Battling Pornography” at a conference on “Character Education and Digital Lifestyles” sponsored by the Interaxion Group and hosted by Rome’s Pontifical University of the Sacred Heart.
How much of this kind of information should we share with our children when we talk to them about pornography?
It depends on their age. With younger children, we should protect their innocence by sparing them the graphic details. Most teens can handle and should know the truth about the pornography industry. As parents, we ourselves should certainly be aware of how toxic, perverse, and immoral pornography is. A sense of revulsion and moral indignation should inspire us to do everything we can to protect our children from this cultural poison.
Is prevention possible? What can families do?
Parents often are at a loss for the “words to say” about sexual matters. In talking with kids about pornography, we should begin in a positive way by emphasizing that sex is a beautiful gift—indeed, from a faith perspective, a gift from God. It’s meant to express and deepen the faithful love between a husband and wife and to bring new life into the world. Pornography turns this beautiful gift into something unloving, dirty, and destructive, something truly awful—the very opposite of what it’s meant to be.
In my own work with parents and teachers, I’ve offered various reasons they can use to explain to kids why pornography is wrong and harmful and something they should never deliberately let into their hearts, minds, and souls. The reasons from this list that you choose to give or emphasize will depend on the age and personality of your child and your own moral and religious convictions.
1. Pornography treats people as objects to be used and abused for the sexual pleasure of viewers and the profit of the pornographers. That’s wrong because every person has human dignity and should never be disrespected or exploited.
2. Sex is meant to express and deepen love between people. Porn separates sex from love. It gives a false picture of human sexuality—the opposite of what sex is really like in relationships that are loving.
3. The mind stores everything. Once you let pornographic images in, you may not be able to get rid of them even if you want to.
4. Pornography changes the brain, like a drug. It can quickly become addictive and take over your life. Because it changes what the brain finds sexually attractive, it can reduce your ability to have normal sexual relationships with real people.
5. For boys, pornography is usually accompanied by masturbation, another habit that’s hard to break. Both habits will reduce your self-control and self-respect.
6. Carried into marriage, both of those habits can cause problems between husbands and wives. A woman whose husband uses pornography often feels like the victim of an affair. Masturbation—having sex with yourself—weakens the sexual relationship between spouses.
7. From a faith perspective, pornography goes against God’s plan for how we are meant to use his gift of sex and violates the sexual purity God expects of us.
Unfortunately, children’s exposure to Internet pornography is happening at younger and younger ages. Experts estimate that in the U.S. and UK, the average age for boys’ first exposure is now 11. This means that some form of parental teaching about pornography has become necessary, especially with boys, even before the middle school years in an effort to prevent involvement and to establish a moral framework for discussing pornography should involvement occur.
If we find that our children have already been exposed to pornography—accidentally or intentionally—we need to listen calmly to how that happened and explain lovingly but very clearly why pornography is seriously wrong and harmful and how to avoid it in the future. If we have faith, we should also pray over them for their future protection and whatever emotional or spiritual healing may be needed. Children exposed to pornography at young ages may react with anxiety, disgust, shock, embarrassment, anger, fear, sadness, or a combination of these emotions.
Children who have deliberately accessed pornography may react with shame and guilt when parents find out. Those are normal moral responses when we’ve done something we know or sense is wrong. Our task as parents is to help a child to move beyond those emotions and make a specific, positive plan for how to avoid this behavior in the future, including what to say and do, for example, when a friend shows you pornography.
With middle schoolers and up, I highly recommend sitting down with them and checking out the Fight the New Drug and Porn Kills Love websites. Both were created by young adults who have launched a worldwide movement that uses science to educate people about the dangers of pornography. Both websites include short, state-of-the-art videos and concise “Get the Facts” presentations of the many ways that “porn harms the brain, the heart, and the world.”
The recent book by the German sociologist Gabriele Kuby, The Global Sexual Revolution, argues that the sexual revolution seeks to overthrow sexual morality. How has parents’ challenge of dealing with pornography been affected by the sexually permissive environment created by the sexual revolution?
It’s made it much harder. The sexual revolution normalized pornography, sexualized the media and marketplace, and promoted recreational sex.
Talking to our kids about the dangers posed by porn will be more effective if it is grounded in a larger, ongoing conversation about the sexual world we now live in and how sexual morality protects us from being corrupted and hurt by it. Our children need to understand that morality isn’t a negative thing that takes the fun out of life. On the contrary, strong moral values help us build a good character, have self-respect, form truly loving relationships, and pursue authentic happiness.
As parents, we need to talk to our kids about what we see as unhealthy sexual attitudes and behaviors, including the sexual messages of the media and the hook-up culture that now prevails on college campuses and in many high schools. This conversation should clearly convey our beliefs and values about these matters and help our children develop a well-formed sexual conscience and habits of chaste living that will enable them to resist the sexual temptations and pressures of today’s hypersexualized culture. We deprive our children of something they very much need if we don’t give them countercultural ways of thinking about sexual matters.
As part of this, we need to give our kids solid reasons to save all sexual intimacy for marriage—reasons that appeal to their intelligence. We can say something like this: “Sexual intimacy is most meaningful, most fulfilling, when it’s part of something bigger—a continuing, loving, committed relationship. When you’re married, your sexual intimacy expresses your total commitment to each other. From this perspective, the ultimate intimacy belongs within the ultimate commitment; we join our bodies when and because we join our lives. And if that commitment exists, a child conceived by your sexual love will have a mother and a father to provide the love and security that every child deserves.”
What values and policies regarding media in the home will help parents reduce the risk of their children becoming involved with pornography?
First of all, there should be the kind of clear and specific teaching about the reasons why pornography is wrong that I’ve suggested. Second, there are safeguards, such as Net Nanny, that parents can install—and tell kids they are installing—that block Internet pornography. But these steps will be more effective if parents also exercise wise authority and vigilance regarding all use of media in the family and clearly explain their reasons for doing so. This conversation about the role of media in family life should communicate a big idea:
“The use of the media in our family is a privilege, not a right. That privilege has to be exercised with the approval and permission of parents—in a way that is consistent with our family values. So, for any particular TV show, movie, magazine, music CD, video game, Internet site, or social media, here’s the question: Is it consistent with what we value and believe as a family?”
Specific guidelines about media use will vary from family to family. In formulating your family’s guidelines, it’s wise to write them out, in a posted “Media Contract” that everyone signs. Here are some guidelines many families have found helpful:
1. The use of any media in our home must support our family values.
2. No TV before school, before homework is done, or during meals. Always ask permission to turn on the TV, and watch only approved programs.
3. Certain nights are “quiet nights”; the TV stays off so we can focus on family activities and doing others things. We’ll choose these nights together as a family.
4. All video games must be previewed by a parent, and limited to agreed-upon times.
5. No mobile devices at meals or after an agreed-upon time of night.
6. Pornographic web sites are blocked by an Internet screen (Note: Digitally savvy kids know how to get around most of these controls, so talking with them about why pornography is wrong is essential for developing the most important control—their conscience).
7. Internet rules: No use of the Internet without parental approval. You must have parental permission to download anything.
8. Movies: No R-rated movies and no PG-13 or PG movies without parental permission. Parents will check out the content and rating of current films on www.screenit.com and www.kidsinmind.com.
To help kids understand the reasons for your guidelines, you can say something like this: “We want you to be able to watch good TV programs and movies and to use other media. But there’s a lot of bad stuff that you shouldn’t be letting into your mind, heart, and soul. It can affect you in ways you may not even be aware of. Trust us about this. Parents who care about their kids care enough to set limits on these things, just as we have rules in other areas. It’s because we love you.”
Plenty of research shows that when our children believe our exercise of authority is based on a loving concern for their welfare, they are much more willing to accept our rules and restrictions.