What Pornography Does to Our Children

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I vividly remember walking down a hallway at an elementary school with a third-grade boy, on our way to his weekly school counseling session. As we walked, we passed an attractive female teacher. His head swiveled, and he said, “Did you see the legs on her?” with a smile and amazed look.

I could not believe what had just happened. This boy, along with a large group of fifth-graders at the school, was struggling with the effects of pornography. They would go out of their way to hug the female teachers, and the teachers thought it was cute. Unknown to them, these boys had formed the “boob” club. They were hugging in order to experience this part of women for themselves. As a result, they were becoming consumers of women, rather than boys who knew how to love.

As parents we want to safeguard our children from viewing pornography, but we may not understand why the fight is bigger than just telling our kids no. It is a more powerful influence in the lives of tweens and teens who view it and more pervasive than most parents suspect.

The porn industry wants your child

In a study examining 44 research studies from 1995 to 2015 that looked at adolescent use of pornography, researchers discovered that there is extensive use of pornography by adolescents worldwide. It is not just a United States issue. In a study involving German adolescents, researchers found that 98 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls said they had seen a pornographic film or clip. In a different study involving Taiwanese adolescents, researchers report that 71 percent of adolescents in the study said they had been exposed to pornography. In these studies, pornography use was mainly unintentional, which means they accidentally stumbled upon the pornographic pictures, films or clips.

Many kids I have seen in my private practice who are struggling with an addiction to pornography were initially exposed to it through a friend, by newspaper underwear or swimsuit ads, on an ad that popped up while searching the internet or by an accidental click on the internet while doing homework. After the unintentional viewing and subsequently wrestling with guilt and shame, they secretively continued looking for the pictures or movies that held similar images and became more intentional in their searches for it.

What porn does to your child’s brain

Porn purveyors understand that younger viewers are more easily addicted. Because adolescence is a formative stage of human development, the brain is easily rewired. During adolescence the brain’s reward pathway, which includes the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens and the pre-frontal cortex, is at its most reactive and sensitive state. What happens is that the brain releases the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine into this reward center, creating a cascading effect of memory and motivation. In other words, teens quickly develop attraction to whatever triggers this part of the brain, and they remember it. Once this happens, there is a motivation to return for more.

Three things happen when dopamine is released into the reward pathway:

  1. impulses increase
  2. the person becomes hypersensitive to rewards
  3. his or her ability to see the big picture is impaired

In other words, immediate rewards become more important than long-term consequences.

The first time someone looks at pornography, he or she experiences a surge of dopamine. At that moment a sort of “parking lot” is built in the brain. It creates enough spaces to accommodate all the “dopamine cars” generated by the initial stimulus. Meanwhile, dopamine is shouting an irresistible message: Do it again!

When that occurs, the brain expands the parking lot. The more often this happens, the greater the demand for “parking spaces.” With repeated stimuli, this demand grows until it becomes insatiable. If the process continues unchecked, it can actually alter the tissue of the brain itself. That’s when pornography can become physically addictive.

Mirror neurons also get affected by viewing pornography. Stated simply, mirror neurons are brain cells that help us imitate and practice what we see. Mirror neurons help us feel or experience what someone else is experiencing. They are necessary for empathy and relationship.

These neurons do not distinguish between television, internet or face-to-face interactions. They respond to the emotions and actions that are being processed in the brain. It is as if the person is experiencing what they are watching, which is what makes movies, shows and relationships interesting to us. The danger is that we begin to experience and mimic what we see.

Explain the truth to your kids

You are armed with the necessary information once you know the porn industry is trying to snag your children and understand how your child’s brain can be rewired. The next step is to share this information with your children.

Sit with them and help them understand why pornography is such a dangerous thing for them. This is what I have told my own teen son and the families I have counseled in my counseling practice:

  • Pornography is not the real deal and is addictive. It is like trying to quench a thirst on a hot day with a warm soda. It really doesn’t quench anything your thirst but leaves you wanting more.
  • Pornography turns a person into a consumer of people rather than a person who genuinely loves others. A consumer gets rid of the object and gets a new one once it is of no use. It turns people into objects and parts of objects to be consumed. Research confirms that people who view pornography are more likely to struggle with depression.
  • Pornography makes it hard to have a genuinely steadfast loving relationship with the opposite sex. Steadfast in this case is defined as loyal, persistent and determined — flaws and all. Love becomes conditional within the influences of pornography.
  • Love takes work, patience, focus and endurance. Our brains tend to go for the lowest hanging fruit or whatever is easiest. Both Scripture and science confirm that an ingredient of wisdom is self-control. Self-control is necessary for maturity and true freedom, not getting to see and do whatever you want.

Rather than just saying no to our children, explaining the very real threat pornography has on their minds, relationships and souls can make a big difference to their understanding of why they need to flee this temptation. This struggle is about helping them win at being connected with others, not being deceived, learning to genuinely love others and having a great marriage someday, if they decide to get married.

Daniel P. Huerta is a licensed clinical social worker and the vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family.

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