Responding to Pornography


Art Bamford | Dec 2, 2014

Photo by Liis Klammer.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

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Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this first installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to help parents and leaders address the issue of online pornography.

Fuller Youth Institute (FYI): In dealing with the issue of porn, a lot of the advice given to parents seems to lean towards either total prohibition (e.g. how to get your child to never view porn), or the need to accept it as inevitable—young men are doing this so we need to emphasize restricting their viewing as much as possible. We’re wondering how you negotiate between those two perspectives, and what advice you might share?

Mike Park: Part of the reality of having an adolescent is that it’s almost impossible to regulate all the content they might be viewing, particularly outside the home. Even if they don’t have access to porn at home, that doesn’t mean they’ll never be exposed to it. I encourage parents to create safeguards and boundaries inside the home (keep the computer in an open area, utilize Internet security software, etc.) but also to help their son or daughter to make good choices when (and not if) they get confronted with porn or anything else that is harmful or destructive.

Billy Jack Blankenship: Most of my interactions are with older teens and emerging adults on college campuses. I will say that the ease and multiple ways students can access pornography is simply overwhelming. We need to stop pretending that parental control is a true option—if a student wants to view porn, they can.

I think it is valid to acknowledge that it is a normal, natural thing to be drawn to such overt sexual content. But that being said, settling for “well, it is inevitable” is also falling short of our responsibility of raising healthy adults in this area of their lives. While teens have such easy and multifaceted ways to access porn, it doesn’t mean they have to look, or fixate on it, or even have to want to look.

Adam McLane: I wouldn’t say I fall in the inevitability category, but I do fall in the grace category. Even a casual user of the Internet is going to stumble upon (accidentally or purposefully) porn. In our house the rule is simple: no one, parents included, may use an Internet-connected device in a private space of the house.

Brad Howell: I like to suggest a different model of thinking along the lines of what Adam has described—that the Internet is public space. By embracing this mental model, connected devices do not belong in private spaces, such as bedrooms.

Of course this doesn’t solve everything, but the benefit to kids is that it helps them learn how to navigate in a world that desperately wants porn to be normative.

I think the claims of universal porn use among young men (and its growing acceptance and use among young women) primarily serves porn producers who want to normalize it, and organizations that profit from scaring parents. Neither serve our youth.

FYI: Regarding the ubiquitous nature of X-rated content, one of the popular solutions we hear about are content filters and blockers. The effectiveness of these is debatable and they can raise trust issues between parents and teens. Weigh the pros and cons for us based on your experience with teens and parents.

Matt: I think you could say that much of the role for parents is knowing how, what, and when to “filter” and “content block” the world on behalf of our children. I’m not sure why doing this electronically would be a different issue. However, if buying a filter is a way for parents to feel like they’ve addressed a problem while avoiding actually talking about sex and sexuality with their children, then filters and blockers are much less helpful.

Adam: Filters are useful for one thing and one thing only: accidentally stumbling upon porn. That being said, we don’t use them in our house and I discourage others to because when a person buys a tool to parent for them or instead of them, it never works. If your teenager (or an adult) wants to look at porn, a filter isn’t going to stop them.

Mike: Like most preventative measures, filters and blockers work best when introduced early so that they become a regular part of a child’s Internet experience at home. Young people are naturally going to be curious and resist boundaries and guardrails, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in place. If Internet filters create a tension due to lack of trust, it may be symptomatic of a deeper issue that goes beyond just Internet use. But a filter can’t be seen as the end-all-be-all solution. It’s a safeguard, but it can only do so much.

Brad: As awkward as it is, families need to talk through what protections make sense for your household. Unilaterally slapping teens with blockers frustrates teens and reduces family solidarity.

FYI: Good point. We assume that young people are happy to stumble upon some of this content, but researchers have found that many do not like it at all. It makes them extremely uncomfortable.

Brad: It is easy for adults to fail to realize how many Internet-enabled devices young people actually own. As kids get older, the importance of negotiating any filters and devices increases for all of us.

Stay tuned for our next post in which our guests will talk specifically about how to include young women when we talk as families and ministries about porn and how it affects the Body of Christ.

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Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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