Cardinal to Parents: Careful What You Buy Your Kids for Christmas

WASHINGTON — Cardinal William Keeler hopes parents get his message before it's too late: Christmas gifts of video cell phones, personal digital assistants or video Ipods may give teenagers the gift of unregulated, unlimited porn.

“It would be wonderful if our priests would inform the people weeks before Christmas of the potential dangers they're opening up to their children and grandchildren by purchasing these wireless devices,” Cardinal Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, said Nov. 15 at the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cardinal Keeler, a member of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography, said the alliance detects a “perfect storm” on the horizon, in which porn will swamp the young generation. He said the storm might result from a convergence of new mobile Internet browsing technologies, a lack of filtering software for these devices and “parents about to make Christmas gift choices.”

“All of the pornography on the Internet will be available within months to all Americans — including children and teens — through the use of wireless handheld devices,” Cardinal Keeler said. “There are no filtering or monitoring devices available. This means that children and teens can access pornography with total anonymity without parents or grandparents having any monitoring.”

The cardinal said cultural encouragement of sexual expression before marriage has caused the United States to suffer the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the industrialized world. He said teen pregnancies have become “the norm,” with 34% of women becoming pregnant at least once before age 20. The storm, he said, will make it all worse.

“We stand at the brink of the greatest threat yet to children,” Cardinal Keeler said.

Rob Jackson fears the cardinal is correct. Jackson, a psychotherapist in Colorado Springs, Colo., has written and researched extensively about America's porn epidemic for Focus on the Family. Jackson owns a full-time counseling service and specializes exclusively in treating porn addiction.

“Most of the clients I treat, whether they're teenagers or adults, are reporting early childhood exposure to porn,” Jackson said. “It is typically Internet porn, and now we're looking at cell phones with full Internet capability and no effective blocking software. You do the math.”

Jackson said long before the recent introduction of hand-held browsing gadgets, the Internet eliminated the barriers that historically stood between children and porn. Pornographic magazines, for example, cost money, thus creating a barrier; Internet porn is often free. Magazines were difficult for some kids to hide; virtual porn isn't.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that nine in 10 children between ages 8 and 16 have been exposed to pornography online. The software company Symantec found that 47% of school-aged children received pornographic spam daily, and representatives of the porn industry told Congress that up to 30% of the traffic to some porn websites comes from children.

“In modern youth culture, this is considered something everyone does,” Jackson said. “They don't get ostracized as adults might, they don't lose their jobs or risk their prestige in the community.”

And once a child or teen is hooked on porn, said Jackson, he or she typically has a worse problem than someone who develops the addiction as an adult.

“Neurologists are teaching that children exposed to sexual images under the age of 14 can develop quicker, more treatment-resistant addictions than adults because neurologically they don't have the ability for discernment and setting boundaries that adults do,” Jackson said. “They see only a sexualized world, without another frame of reference.”

Seeking Solutions

Jackson, a non-denominational Protestant, said his work in counseling porn addicts has led him to a respect and understanding of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body.

“Children today have only heard about sex in the context of biology and potential consequences, but they haven't heard any of the redemptive material John Paul II wrote about, which offers the truthful perspective on human sexuality,” Jackson said.

Paul Rasavage, a recovering porn addict and devout Catholic, was first exposed to pornography when he discovered sexually explicit magazines at age 5 when he was sent for a nap in his uncle's bedroom. Rasavage said he agrees with Cardinal Keeler's concern that porn addiction is out of control and getting worse. However, he doesn't believe parents can solve the problem by denying video cell phones and Ipods to kids.

“The approach of trying to control porn would have the same success of prohibition in the ‘30s, because we have not addressed the disorder desire,” said Rasavage, who established as a resource for Catholic porn addicts who want help. “The disorder desire is what the Church should attack. When that's gone, the profits will be gone and porn will go away.”

The best way to counter porn, Rasavage said, is for Catholics to take back the culture from the clutches of paganism and secularism.

“We are now missionaries in pagan territory — that's how much the culture has degenerated — and we have to teach teenagers that there is one God, he has rules, and we have to follow them,” Rasavage said.

In his speech, Cardinal Keeler emphasized the fact that he isn't trying to condemn the concept of portable Internet devices.

“The technology in itself is not evil,” Cardinal Keeler said. “The technology itself is good. The danger lies in the fact there are no safeguards or regulations in place to protect children and teens from being exposed to unwanted, explicit pornographic material through these wireless handheld devices.”

James Mackin, president of the Internet solutions company Logic Focus Inc. in Louisville, Colo., said he can't foresee a solution in government regulation.

“This isn't something a government can fix, because the technology is without borders,” Mackin said. “Something like the V-Chip, used in TV monitors, would not work because it is a U.S.-only solution and the content would not be encoded with a rating.”

Mackin believes filtration may be helpful, even though it's not successful in conventional computers. He said the best filtration solutions would result from a cooperative effort among Internet service providers and producers of hand-held Internet devices.

“Even if we get all the right pieces in place, we need to find a way to prevent pornography from being sent from device to device, bypassing the opt-in controls that we would incorporate into the devices and network,” Mackin said. “Just like the drug pushers, the porn pushers are going to give away samples to get our young people hooked.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.