A 16-year-old girl who calls herself Addicted and Ashamed in Iowa recently wrote to Dear Abby: “I’m friendly, cheerful, religious and an honors student. I am also addicted to porn.” The girl’s school counselor encouraged her to think of porn use as just “expressing her sexuality in her own way,” but Abby strongly disagreed and encouraged Addicted to talk more candidly with her mother and obtain professional help.
While some Dear Abby readers may consider Addicted and Ashamed an unusual case, as sex and relationship therapists we know that she represents the tip of the iceberg of a growing problem among today’s youth. Porn comes at children and teens in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we were growing up. It’s on the Internet, on cable television, on cell phones, and even in videogames. Today’s kids, rather than encountering major obstacles to contacting porn, often have difficulty avoiding it. As a result, in many cases, porn is hijacking their sexuality and causing serious physiological, emotional, social, and sexual harm.
The numbers are startling. The average age of first porn exposure is under 11 years old. One in four children with Internet access are accidentally exposed to porn while online. We all know how easily that can happen. Just by typing in a search word while doing research for a book report, for example, a child can land on one of over 400 million pages of porn on the Internet. An alarming 80 percent of 15- to 17- year-olds have had multiple exposures to hardcore pornography. Surveys show that youth under the age of 18 are now one of the largest consumers of the more than $97 billion dollar global industry porn has become.
While researchers don’t yet know enough about the long term consequences of early exposure and, for some, addiction to, porn, we do know from our research and experience with clients that anyone can develop a problem with porn. While it’s still primarily an issue for adult men, more women and children are experiencing difficulties. In fact, for many young people today, porn is their first and most formative sexual experience. This is especially disturbing, given that most children do not receive thorough sexuality education to combat the lies and misleading information porn provides them about sex.
Unfortunately, as the letter to Dear Abby illustrates, most parents and professionals that work with children are not prepared to advise and treat porn-related issues. While there are formal porn and sex addiction recovery programs for adults, such things don’t readily exist for teens and youth. Kids developing porn problems today need help in so many areas: basic sex education, social skills development, learning about the difference between porn sex and healthy sex, identifying the negative consequences of porn use and addiction, developing self-soothing and stress management skills, and assistance recovering from porn-related damage to sexual attitudes, interests, and conditioned behaviors.
As a society we need to openly discuss the reality of pornography use by our children. We need to have the same courage Addicted and Ashamed had in bringing the problem out of the darkness. In order to move forward and help the next generations deal with this exponentially growing problem, we adults need to rid ourselves of outdated perceptions and beliefs about porn. It is not just harmless entertainment for many people, especially those too young to understand what an impact it can have on their lives. We also need to overcome our embarrassment about talking about porn issues, with our own children, with our friends and family, and with our communities. Only when we remove those barriers can we as a society begin to do the protective and preventative work that will be required to keep our children safe.
Children have a right to sexual innocence. They have a right to let their sexuality develop at a natural pace, not one that is sped up and led astray by an industry whose primary goal is to make money. Children have a right to have their first sexual relationship with a partner whom they care about, not with a machine that teaches them to interact with a product, not a person. As parents, educators, and communities, we work hard to keep youth from smoking and using drugs and alcohol. We need to get past our group shame so we can help them resist the powerful pull of pornography as well.
Addicted and Ashamed was brave enough to share her story, but not all children are, nor should they have to be. It is time we start facing our own fears, because in today’s porn-rich environment, a simple talk about the birds and the bees is not nearly enough.