Uncharted Waters

Much of what passes for modern life is simply the life we knew ten years ago ratcheted up several notches.  News travels faster, opinions are formed more quickly, social media passes judgment on events with less knowledge and at faster speed with greater anger, and ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ is no longer an exaggeration in fads and fashions.

The truth is that there aren’t many social and behavioral trends that are truly and uniquely new to our time.  But here’s one:  for the first time in human history, a generation of children are being exposed to, and raised on, a relatively steady diet of hard core pornography.

Yes, I know, not your kids.  Your children will successfully avoid it.  The filters on your home computer form an impenetrable wall between your children and the tidal waves of porn crashing against the ramparts of society.

I hope so.  But studies tend to agree that children in America receive their first exposure to pornography when they are eleven years old.   By the time they’re 17, 93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen online porn.

As a society, we are in completely uncharted waters when it comes to understanding the impact of the unwanted lessons our children are learning from porn exposure.   We don’t yet know exactly how porn affects the hardwiring of young developing brains. Will porn-exposed children still be able to form strong, mature, caring and supportive sexual relationships as they grow up?  Or will the extraordinarily selfish and exploitive nature of pornography become the default emotional response of our children in the relationships that will determine much of their future happiness?

The simple answer is that we aren’t completely sure.   If you read the scientific studies—and there are plenty you can read online—many answers repeat.  We don’t know how childhood exposure to pornography will modify a child’s behavior through his adult life.  We can suppose, deduce, and predict, but we can’t say for certain.  How, after all, do you study this?  Do you show children porn and then measure the effects?  No.

But here are the best guesses from what research exists.  Pornography appears to contribute to rape and sexual violence, as children observe that sex is an essentially selfish act existing only for personal gratification.  Pornography exposure also appears to increase the number of children who act out sexually with other children.  And pornography exposure can potentially interfere with a child’s emotional development and identity.

But the long-term research is still being written.  The hard-core generation is still in the early years of adulthood. It will be decades before we positively know the impact of how our children’s nearly inevitable early exposure to porn will fully play out in their lives.

In the meantime, we need to make sure our own heads are not stuck in the sand.  Although we do everything we can to keep porn away from our children, we should also be ready to respond with compassion and understanding when we discover our best efforts have failed.   A reinforcing shot of our own values and standards, delivered with love and non-judgmental tenderness just when they need it most, is our best weapon in the fight for our children’s developing hearts and minds.

The good news—there are now many websites that can help parents help their children who have been exposed to pornography.  Many of these sites approach the subject from a religious point of view.   They offer constructive ideas and are worth a look.

Can government regulation ‘help?’  Doubtful.   Last year the Utah legislature passed a non-binding resolution declaring pornography a public health issue akin to smoking and alcohol.  The resolution got headlines, but triggered no action.  In the end, declaring porn a public health issue is fine, but so what? Public health issues abound in the United States.  Porn can just get in line.

The uncomfortable truth is that we can only wait for the final answer to the question of how pornography affects developing young minds, now that its reach is virtually unstoppable.  In fifty years or so the results will be finally, positively known—and by then it will be our children, not us, who will be dealing with the consequences.

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