Focus on the Family

When Children View Pornography

by Rob Jackson

No healthy parent wants to think about his child viewing pornography, but it often happens. Some researchers have stated that the average age of exposure to pornography is down to 8. Before the days of the Internet, children were typically between the ages of 11 to 13 when they began by viewing soft-core pornography found in magazines like Playboy.

Today's child lives in a culture where hard-core pornography abounds. Our children are being seduced daily, and we need to bear this fact in mind whenever we have the occasion to redirect them away from pornography.

It is also extremely important that parents not direct all their efforts toward their sons at the expense of their daughters. Pornography and other sexualized media can adversely affect girls as well as boys and often leads to significant damage in their ability to form healthy relationships as an adult.

The goal

We want to be intentional parents. It's our privilege and responsibility to educate them about sexuality. We want to begin early, and continue throughout their time with us in the home.

The ultimate goal for our children's sexuality is that they will be able to see the dynamic interplay between sexuality and spirituality. As Christians, we want to help them understand, for example, that sexual intercourse is an act of love shared between a husband and wife. This sacred act symbolizes the spiritual union that will occur between Christ and His bride, the Church, upon His return to earth. We hope our sons will see themselves as a type of Christ as they relate to their wives, and that our daughters will see themselves as a type of the church as they relate to their husbands. What we model today in our marriages will likely reproduce itself in our children's marriages.

By helping our children to see the big picture about the sanctity of sex, we are better prepared to confront the problem of pornography when and if it occurs in our children's lives.

Do you and your spouse share the same core values?

Ideally, parents will share the same core values that promote sexual purity. This unity will facilitate your child's recovery. On the other hand, if a child's parents are divided about pornography, that child's rehabilitation will be more difficult.

A child's repetitive involvement with pornography can be a symptom of an unhappy home. Once the child's issues begin to surface, his parents may benefit from marital therapy if they continue to be at odds on pornography in general or fail to agree on how to facilitate their child's recovery.

Before you start beating yourself up, however, any exposure to pornography can harm children—even otherwise healthy children. The point here is not to blame parents but to help them identify any problems that may be negatively affecting their children's understanding of sexuality or recovery

Did my child view pornography intentionally?

I'm convinced that children are victims of a covert form of sexual abuse1 whenever they are confronted with sexually provocative materials. With this in mind, our children need us to be healthy advocates for their well-being – even if we must confront their willful exposure to porn.

If a child has been found with pornography, it's important to not jump to conclusions. A harsh, impulsive interrogation will most likely just shut down your child. An unhealthy shame often leads to more acting-out with pornography.

You will want to learn how your child found pornography. For example, did someone introduce your child to pornography? Mental health professionals recognize the power differential that occurs as result of age, and if the person who introduced the pornography was older by three or four years, it constitutes a type of sex abuse.2 These incidents should be reported to local authorities.


1Sex abuse can occur without physical touch. The brain is the most important organ that responds to sexual stimulation.
2Sex abuse can be distinguished from child play whenever the power differential of three or four years of age exists between the two children. The older child will be more experienced and sophisticated, while the younger child will be more vulnerable and naive.

How to Respond

Here are questions to ask as you evaluate your child's exposure to pornography.

by Rob Jackson

Was this my child's first exposure?

It will also be important to learn if this was his first exposure to pornography. The frequency of exposure matters, as a child becomes increasingly desensitized over time. As desensitization occurs, a child typically begins to seek a greater frequency of pornography, and a harder or more severe quality. Greater frequency and a shift to hard-core pornography are indicators that the brain has begun to seek more stimulation, which can lead to addiction.

If you learn that your child has developed a habit of viewing pornography, it will be important to seek the services of a specialist who is trained to facilitate recovery.

Just exactly what did my child see?

What types of pornography did he see? Sadly, with the Internet a child can be exposed to a wide range of sexual perversions in seconds. If your child has an e-mail address, chances are he or she is being exposed to pornographic e-mail. One recent study found that 47 percent of school-aged children received porn spam on a daily basis. This study also found that as many as one in five children open the spam they receive.1 It will be important to learn about the types of pornography that your child viewed. For example, was the pornography heterosexual or homosexual? Was it limited to body parts or did it include sex acts? Was sexual violence a part of the pornography, and did it include bestiality?

Many parents will seek the help of a therapist at this point. Wisely, they want to safeguard their roles as parents, and avoid harming the relationship by making the teen feel interrogated or ashamed as they ask such difficult questions. The therapist can also delicately approach the job of ascertaining to what extent he or she has been exposed to more severe types of pornography, without inadvertently planting ideas the teen has never even imagined.

Regardless of what was viewed, it will be more important to rehabilitate your child than to merely correct or punish him.

How can you prevent future occurrences?

Frankly, there is no guarantee that even the best parent can prevent his child's exposure to pornography. As with parents of any age or culture, we seek to do the best we can with the resources we have. Should another incident occur, it will be another teachable moment where you restate the precepts and principles that guide us toward wholeness.

Fortunately, the probability of future occurrences can be diminished by taking a four-pronged approach.

Behavioral. Behavioral approaches attempt to prevent a scenario from developing in the first place. The house and grounds, for example, should be purged of all pornography. Media should be carefully screened for "triggers" that serve as gateways to acting-out. If the problem occurred with the Internet, a filter can be one of your strategies, although it can never replace parental supervision and involvement.2 Other common-sense approaches include moving the computer to the family room where others can easily view the screen, limiting the time on the computer so that no one is alone on the Internet, and developing a mission statement that directs the family's the use of the computer and the Internet.

Cognitive. Pornography is propaganda and generates destructive myths about sexuality. Once exposed, it will be critically important that a comprehensive sex education gets underway, if it has not already been initiated. The child will need to learn what and how to think about sexuality. More than mere behaviors, parents will want to communicate the core values of sexuality, the multifaceted risks of sex outside of marriage, and their ongoing compassion for what it must be like to grow up in this culture.

Emotive. Sex is inherently emotional. Premarital sex has even been linked with codependency, where at least one person becomes compelled or addicted to be in relationship with another. The youth culture would lead you to believe that sex is not necessarily emotional for them – don't you believe it. Sexual relations of any type bond the bodies, minds, and spirits of two individuals. At the conscious level, this attachment is largely emotional. Our children need to understand that emotional attachment is often involuntary, and especially when the relationship has been compromised sexually.

Spiritual. At its core, sexual integrity comes down to a spiritual commitment. The Christian message of how Christ loves His bride, the Church, is our inspiration. The prohibitions and consequences of sexual sin are secondary to the intimacy that one experiences in obedience to God. Our children need to see how our lives are different because of His love. With confidence, we can share with them that God's true love will empower them to avoid the trap of pornography.

Has your child's exposure to pornography triggered you?

A child's exposure to pornography often triggers a parent's unresolved issues. It may be that a mom will be reminded of sex abuse in her past, or a father will be reminded of his own struggles with pornography and other sexual sins. Because these kinds of memories can be painful, coping with a child's exposure to pornography can become even more difficult. For these reasons, family therapy may be particularly helpful.

A final thought

If we really believe that sin is a powerful barrier between our child and God, we will move past a mere "sin management" approach to mentor them into a loving relationship with us and, more importantly, with Him. Wherever pornography or sexual sin is found, whether in the lives of our children or in our own, we can surrender ourselves and those we love to the greater care and compassion of our Father. His purity remains and cleanses us.


1"Symantec survey reveals more than 80 percent of children using e-mail receive inappropriate spam daily," Business Wire, June 9, 2003.
2Internet filters are effective, but not perfect. For children and adolescents, a combination of a filter and an accountability web application like Covenant Eyes is better. If one willfully and repeatedly attempts to get around a filtered Internet, the computer is like a "Skinner box" which actually reinforces the compulsion to find more pornography.

Advice for Parents of Teen Porn Addicts

When faced with their teen's struggle, most parents don't know where to begin to get the helps he or she needs.

by Rob Jackson

With the advent of the Internet, parents are finding it increasingly difficult to shield their children from pornography. Now, in addition to the exposure kids might encounter from classmates who borrowed one of their father's magazines, most school-age children and adolescents are spending large amounts of time online for homework or entertainment reasons. Attorney General John Ashcroft has estimated that nine in ten teens have been exposed to pornography. Unfortunately, many of these teens are susceptible to developing addictions or compulsions to these images.

The term "addict" may seem severe. Most parents will initially minimize the problem, hoping their son or daughter is simply "experimenting." Experience has taught me that, in many cases, at least one of the parents will have faced similar struggles when he or she was younger. Today, however, Internet pornography is the fast ramp to sex addiction. Coupled with a greater moral decay in the culture and the fact that children's minds are still are still in the process of developing to maturity, addiction can happen quicker than we parents like to think.

Not long ago, I was a guest on Focus on the Family's teen call-in radio show Life on the Edge Live! During the hour, several adolescents called in to discuss sexual integrity. Even having previously treated adolescent addicts, I was surprised that the first four callers identified themselves as sex addicts – three of which were females.

My own practice and experiences such as those on the call-in show demonstrate that the problems of teenage pornography and sex addictions are real, devastating, and increasing. When faced with their teen's struggle, most parents don't know where to begin to get their child the help he or she needs.

Taking ownership

In many situations, the first reaction is to determine who is to blame within the family. It is important to realize, however, that bad things still happen to good families. This does not absolve certain parties from taking responsibility where it is needed. Everyone needs to take ownership of his or her piece of the puzzle.

For example, parents need to ask if they have provided a comprehensive sex education that truly equipped their child with the winsome truth expounded in the Bible. Setting proper foundations for understanding a Christian sexual ethic is a crucial step in protecting children from later sexual disorder.

Parents will also want to re-evaluate the types and amounts of media they have allowed in the home. People tend to absorb the messages that bombard them in popular media; more so with teens and young children. What have your children been listening to and watching? Is their media reinforcing respectful messages about sexuality and the dignity of the person, or is it working to erode these foundational principles in your child's mind?

Another often-overlooked problem is the sad reality of sex abuse. Most sex addicts have suffered sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and treatment of sex abuse is foundational to overcoming sex addiction.

The adolescent addict also has areas of responsibility. Has he or she been honest about the sexual struggles? Have there been other excesses like alcohol or drugs? Has a peer or perhaps an adult been a bad influence? Most important of all, has the adolescent made a full disclosure to his parents so that the family can become equipped to deal with sex addiction?

Parents need to realize that their teen is likely suffering from extreme shame and embarrassment. Authoritarian dictates are not likely to encourage your child to open up and share the extent of his or her struggles. Compassionate love and understanding, such as Jesus demonstrated to the woman caught in adultery, is likely to help your child feel safe enough to disclose the full story.

Many families will already have experienced serious communication breakdown with their teens. How parents approach their teen in this situation will likely determine whether unhealthy patterns of communications will continue to disrupt and frustrate the relationship or whether a new foundation of openness, trust, and safety can be built and sustained throughout the struggle.

What to expect

Parents will need to remind themselves that they are often prone to minimizing what they know or suspect to be the truth. Parents also need to realize the resistance they will encounter from their teen. Most addicts, regardless of age, will deny their struggle. They may even shift the blame and become verbally aggressive. Others may agree immediately that they have sinned or hurt others, and promise too quickly that they will never do it again. Getting caught hardly changes the heart.

Of course, it's to be expected that everyone will feel awkward, maybe even embarrassed. Regardless of the discomfort, however, when there is evidence of illicit sexual behavior and possible addiction, parents have to take the lead.


Preventing Future Use

Restoring your teen after porn use

by Rob Jackson

Principles, not personalities

Chances are this encounter will exacerbate personality differences already evident in the family, but parents and teen alike need to understand that this issue is not about personalities but about principles. Ideally, parents will have educated their children about the principles or core values that pertain to personal integrity. When these principles are violated, parents don't need to make this a personal issue, even though the wound will be highly personal.

Those who have not undertaken this core training will experience greater difficulty reaching the teen. Compounding the problem will be any moral lapse or habits that the teen witnesses in the parents' lives. It is extremely difficult to admonish a child for seeking out pornography if the parents have a few video cassettes they claim to be marital aids. Children are experts at sniffing out hypocrisy.

If parents are morally compromised in this situation, there are only a few choices they can make. They can either let the matter drop, thus resigning their teen to a cycle of pain, shame and addiction, or they can make the decision to eliminate those harmful aspects of their own lives and work toward bringing healing and restoration to the entire family.

Youth culture often counters parental values; adolescents may claim the right to express sexuality in whatever ways they desire. Without moral absolutes, they are prone to experimentation and believe that being true to one's self is the greater good.

Boundaries and accountability

The fact remains that parents are responsible to a large degree for their children and for what their children do. For example, when an adolescent violates one or more civil laws pertaining to sexual conduct, his parents will typically become involved in the court hearings as well. Taking up their moral responsibility, parents of teenage addicts will need to state clear boundaries so that the guidelines and consequences are obvious.

Sadly, simply stating clear moral guidelines won't change the heart of our children. Nevertheless, parents should be clear. Adolescents are to be accountable for their conduct, especially when trust has been violated.

Some initial guidelines for children would involve the types of media they are exposed to and the times and places of exposure. For example, parents would want to regulate Internet usage to specific times of the day or only when they are present. They may need specialized software to help them achieve these measures. Other restrictions could include limiting Internet use for homework purposes only and limiting TV viewing.

Heavy-handedness without appropriate ongoing communication and relationship can drive a teen further away from you and drive a continuation of his or her acting out.

The guidelines parents set should not be limited to media in the home. Considering the seriousness of your child's problem, guidelines should also be developed for conduct outside the household, with a signed agreement clearly stating consequences for infractions.

The reader can see how this could easily become a case of "parenting with an iron fist." These measures need to be moderated by your family's situation and your unique relationships. Above all, you must enter into these measures making sure that you are acting out of love and a motivation to help your child toward healing. Just as important, your child must perceive that you are acting with such a motivation. Heavy-handedness without appropriate ongoing communication and relationship can drive a teen further away from you and drive a continuation of his or her acting out.

Ideally, fathers should discuss these matters with sons, and mothers with daughters. Follow-up is important and, at least initially, these times of accountability may need to occur daily so that the teenage addict can check-in.

Safeguard other children

The most difficult question that can emerge is how to safeguard other children in the home. We want to think the best of our loved ones, regardless of age. It's hard to imagine that a family member may actually pose a hazard to another family member. Where sex addiction exists, however, a careful evaluation for risk factors is always warranted.

Understandably, parents will want to protect younger children from the knowledge that an older sibling is addicted to pornography or other sexual behaviors. In fact, many times, the younger children remain relatively innocent, and perhaps the parents have not yet initiated sex education. Nevertheless, there are times when parents will need to err on the side of caution, and share with younger children that an older sibling is in trouble sexually, and therefore, won't be left alone in their presence without parental supervision.

Every family situation differs in type and severity. For this reason, it's not possible to offer specific advice in a brief article. Fortunately, however, help and hope is available though Focus on the Family's Counseling Department. For a confidential assessment and referral to a specialist, call (800) 232-6459 weekdays 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time).

Seek professional help

If your child struggles with pornography or act outs sexually in other ways, professional help will be critically important. Often, Christian parents seek the help of a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, or perhaps someone from school. While all of these people have key-support roles to play, most likely none are specialized in the treatment of sex abuse and/or addiction.

The specialist can equip you to know how to approach your child. You will also learn how to monitor the situation, and develop more or less support depending on your particular circumstances.

Just because your teenager seems to be addicted today to pornography does not mean that he or she must remain addicted tomorrow. Kids of all ages are incredible resilient, especially when their legitimate needs are being met in meaningful ways.

A reality check

If your teenager is diagnosed with sex addiction, it means this condition did not occur overnight. To some degree, there has been a progression that most likely dates back to the first time your child was exposed to pornography or some other form of sexual abuse.

Because our children are in various stages of development where some degree of sexual experimentation is likely, it can be difficult to pin down whether or not a serious problem actually exists. The secrecy that surrounds sexual sin also makes it difficult to detect what may be happening in the private lives of our children.

As we work to restore our children to sexual and spiritual health, we must understand the role intimacy takes in this process. Sex addiction is never really about sex, but about the void in one's spirit. Even when a teenager has a faith-based life in Christ, he or she will still be faced with quite a bit of sexual temptation. If he or she can develop self-control in this area, most likely self-control in other areas will follow.

In every case where self control abounds, we can express our heartfelt gratitude to God who loves our children even more than we do.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources for responding to pornography use among your children

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