Maybe you’re thinking this subject doesn’t apply to you. You’d never allow your children to view pornography! Keep reading. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your child will never be exposed to it – either by accident or intentionally. Pornography is too easy for a child to stumble upon, or seek out, or be shown by a friend. And it is toxic. Beyond the fact that it obscures the truth of God’s plan for sex, it can do harm in ways you might not expect.

Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge about viewing pornography is that it’s wrong, according to the Church. In 2015, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on pornography called “Create in Me a Clean Heart.” Here is a small portion of it:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines pornography this way:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. (2523)

The moral status of pornography is clear from this passage: producing or using pornography is gravely wrong. It is a grave matter by its object. It is a mortal sin if it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Unintentional ignorance and factors that compromise the voluntary and free character of the act can diminish a person’s moral culpability. This sin needs the Lord’s forgiveness and should be confessed within the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The damage it causes to oneself, one’s relationships, society, and the Body of Christ needs healing. Pornography can never be justified and is always wrong.”

Unfortunately this clear teaching from the Church has not gotten through to many young people. A Barna Research Group survey found that a majority of teenagers believe that “not recycling” ranks as worse on the immorality scale than viewing porn. The only way our kids will know it’s wrong is if we tell them. The culture around us definitely won’t be sending them that message. It’s up to us, when the time is right, to talk to our kids not only about the dangers of porn but the fact that it’s just plain wrong.

Dr. Jill Manning is the author of What’s the Big Deal About Pornography? A Guide for the Internet Generation. She’s also a therapist who specializes in pornography issues and problematic sexual behavior. Exposure to pornographic images, according to Manning and other mental health professionals, can have a lasting negative and even traumatic impact on the brains and psychological well-being of children and adolescents. And Dr. Manning should know since many of her patients are just such casualties. Manning doesn’t hold back when it comes to what she thinks about pornography: “I believe pornography is the most successfully marketed insult and attack on our divine nature as human beings that has ever existed,” she writes. “There’s never been anything so calculated and widespread and so effective at reaching so many people at such a young age.”

It’s difficult to know exactly how many pornographic websites are in operation, but according to one survey, such sites receive more traffic each month than Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter combined. Some estimates put the number of pornographic websites at over four million.

Many children stumble upon explicit material while doing otherwise innocent internet searches, doing homework, or simply by opening email. According to statistics compiled by GuardChild, 70% of children ages 7 to 18 years old have inadvertently been exposed to online pornography. Some of Dr. Manning’s patients report first encountering pornography at the age of 5 or 6. Manning told me about one of her patients — now a grown man — who is struggling with same-sex attraction. He firmly believes he is straight, and he wants to get married and have a family. But his first sexual experience was with homosexual pornography — beginning at the age of nine. In Dr. Manning’s experience, pornography shouldn’t be taken lightly. “It’s not something you dabble in for a few years and then clean up your act before you get married. This will handicap your ability to be intimate in marriage. If you desire a satisfying sexual experience with a spouse someday, this is a surefire, fast track way to ruin that.”

The first thing parents need to understand is that the responsibility for protecting our children from pornography lies with us. Many parents, accustomed to the safety nets in place for print and broadcast outlets, simply don’t realize that they bear this burden. In fact, statistics from the Pew Research Center show that the use of parental controls and filters has decreased over the last few years. In 2005, more than half of American families used filters to block potentially harmful online material. But by 2016, only 39 percent made use of parental controls for their teens’ online activities, with a paltry 16 percent doing so for mobile devices. Parents are, in effect, the only line of defense between children and pornography, at least wherever there’s a digital device and Internet access. Dr. Manning, most of whose clients are Christians, believes that parents need a wake-up call. Many don’t know what’s out there, and how easily it can be accessed. Many don’t know that their kids might come across it by mistake. Many have the attitude that it simply couldn’t — or wouldn’t — happen in their homes.

 

So what can parents do to protect their children from exposure to pornography?

First, parents should make use of the protections and filters available to them. Since most of the digital devices kids use are portable (laptops, smartphones, and tablets), parents should consider device filtering (as opposed to filters that work at the modem level). There are several companies that offer this. Educate and Empower Kids names these specifically as the best internet and phone filters of 2018:

  • K9Webprotection.com
  • Netnanny.com
  • Covenanteyes.com
  • Norton Family
  • Qustodio
  • 120 Chapter 5
  • KidLogger
  • McAfee
  • Wigito
  • Surfie by Pure Sight

In addition to filters, parents need to discuss the existence and the dangers of pornography with children, much as they do when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Children need to know, in an age-appropriate way, that such images can turn them away from God’s plan for the love between a husband and wife and that pornography is not an accurate representation of sex. When your child gains access to a digital device — their own, a friend’s, or at school — it is time to start the discussion.

The organization Educate and Empower Kids has published a book called How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography. They recommend parents start by explaining what pornography is. The definition you use will obviously depend on your child’s age and his or her level of understanding. Here’s the official definition they use: “The portrayal of explicit sexual content for the purpose or intent of causing sexual arousal. In it, sex and bodies are commodified (made into a product for sale) for the purpose of making a financial profit.” Simpler definitions they suggest, presumably for young children, include these: “Pornography is pictures or videos of people with little or no clothes on.” And “Online pornography usually shows videos of people having sex.”

Another book to consider for young children is Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids by Kristen A. Jenson and Gail Poyner. It’s a read-aloud book with the goal of installing an internal filter in children’s brains to keep them safe from the poison of pornography.

Nobody wants to talk about pornography, least of all parents with their children. Difficult as it may be, it’s important. Young people who are exposed to pornographic images at a formative stage of their growth as sexual beings can come to see sexuality as disconnected from relationships, and disconnected from any spiritual context. They will learn to objectify human beings, seeing others in a setting devoid of feelings, personalities, and needs.

Here’s more inspiration from the USCCB’s pastoral letter on pornography:

Being exposed to pornography can be traumatic for children and youth. Seeing it steals their innocence and gives them a distorted image of sexuality, relationships, and men and women, which may then affect their behavior. It can also make them more vulnerable to being sexually abused, since their understanding of appropriate behavior can be damaged.

Parents, protect your children.

This article was adapted from Marcia Segelstein’s new book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids.