Go to Top

Porn Abuse in Teens

Pornography Abuse in Teenagers:

How Parents can Understand and Reverse It

 

America’s surgeon general has agreed with the consensus of research:   9 out of every 10 young people will be exposed to Internet pornography before they reach age 18.   Quarantine assumes you are more savvy with technology than your teen, which is highly doubtful.  So quarantine needs to be strengthened by inoculation, so that using both becomes the best strategy to prevent infection here.  And let’s not kid ourselves: internet porn is very infectious and attractive these days – alluring, accessible, affordable, anonymous (if user wants), adaptable (to user wishes), ASAP-quick, aggressively approaching, and always accepting.   It packs a powerful pleasure punch every time.

 

Nowadays we are finding that even well-adjusted teenagers – socially, emotionally, morally, and spiritually healthy – are getting hooked on pornography. I have had three of my last four intakes involve the primary problem of pornography abuse, all in 15-year-old boys, all entirely separate cases, all in apparently healthy Christian homes with parents still married.  I have written this for them, because after hours of searching, I have found nothing like this for them on the Internet.  As I reviewed what I’d written here, I think most of the assumptions and strategies would be helpful even to parents of college students who are having a problem with this, just changing the word teenager to college student.  Also, it may be unrealistic to expect or request that a college male living on his own won’t watch any porn.

 

 Let’s define our terms.  Pornography is sexually arousing or explicit words, images, or behaviors, which persons placed in authority to protect the parties involved consider to be harmful to those parties.    It is abuse to the extent that it involves lies, obsession (distracted by it often), compulsion (failed efforts to quit or control it), tolerance (it takes more and more to satisfy), severe mood changes before and after it, unplanned and unwanted outcomes, rise in other abusive or addictive behaviors, or neglect of responsibilities and relationships.

 

What are the signs or side effects of pornography abuse (PA) in teenagers?  Here are 13 smoke signals, and six or more tell you there is likely a consuming fire of porn abuse:

  • lying about sexual or romantic activities, or about the telephone or Internet
  • secretive use of phones or other personal electronic devices connected to the Internet
  • increased disrespect for authority figures
  • abusing drugs or alcohol during romantic or lovemaking situations
  • black and white thinking (people and activities seen as awful or awesome, useless or priceless)
  • change in values/lifestyle regarding choices of peers, music, entertainment
  • masturbating to porn (it is Pavlov’s classical conditioning – training the brain to want porn)
  • attraction to intimacies involving power imbalance (aggression, threats, force, role abuse)
  • diminished interest in school and extracurricular activities
  • loss of interest in social activities with friends
  • excessive interest (or disinterest) in normal dating experiences
  • extreme feelings (or lack) of guilt/shame over sexual behavior
  • isolating by spending lots of time alone online, or on the phone with people unknown to parents

 

How can parents approach teenagers to talk constructively about solving this problem?  The

strategy I give here involves a few assumptions.  Any of these that parents don’t agree with need to be discussed with objective third parties.

 

  • The teenager is male, as a slight majority of porn abusers are. [Here, it just makes the language easier, but the same approach should be taken with female porn abusers.]
  • He is going through a needed, normal period of rebellion in order to define himself differently from his parents, and from the child he has been.
  • Teens need to feel and believe they are making independent decisions without being forced into them. Otherwise they won’t learn from their choices or take responsibility for their outcomes.
  • A teen abusing porn does not tell his parents how much he is doing it. He often can’t admit it to himself, and much less can he admit it to his parents.
  • He needs to learn to express his feelings, values and beliefs with his parents, so he can lead by expressing them in words to his peers as well. Otherwise he will be a slave to peer pressure.
  • The path of maturity is valuing others as much as self, the future as much as the present, and judgment (the head) as much as feelings (the heart).
  • A teen’s avoidable last-minute asking for parental permission/blessing should not be indulged. Peers that don’t want to think ahead or wait are not likely to be a good influence on your teen.
  • Parents and teenage children need to partner in valuing what the teen needs more than what the parent wants.
  • Parents choose the lessons they teach, and teens choose when and how they learn those lessons.
  • Parents and teens both need to give and receive love, respect, and understanding with each other, and often they need to take turns doing one of those things at a time.

 

A Strategy for Talking with your Teen about Porn Abuse

 

Step One:        Learn what your teen believes is good and bad for him sexually, and whyHere you learn

his motivation to avoid PA when the temptation arises.

 

            The series of questions and answers recommended below is long and difficult.  No pain, no gain, for you as parents, or for your teenager.  Most often, these cannot be done at one setting, so don’t hesitate to schedule follow-up discussions until you’re done.  Whenever one of you parents even begins to get upset, hand the clipboard of questions over to the other one.  If you anticipate you might both be unable to hide your negative feelings, it might help to ask a relative, pastor, counselor, or a friend of the family to do this with you, perhaps even to open and close the first session.  But the goal is for you parents to learn to do as much of this as possible on your own at home, even if at first you need outside encouragement or role-modeling to reach this goal of independence.

 

The reason parents should keep up a calm appearance is because the more parents seem upset at the behavior of their rebellious teenager, the less the teenager himself is upset by it.  Why is that?  If the teen has reasons to be upset with the disrespectful tone of your behaviors, he is distracted from feeling upset at his own disrespectful behavior, and only THOSE feelings would motivate him to make healthier decisions when you aren’t around.  If you disrespect him by interrupting, insulting, threatening, raising your voice, or demanding that he obey, you will be giving him reasons to feel disrespected.  Then he will comfortably rationalize that you don’t deserve any better, that he is just following your lead of disrespect, and just paying you back the hurt you gave.

 

If he confesses some wrongdoing when he didn’t have to, like when he wouldn’t have been caught but he just felt guilty, he might be telling all he knows.  But when he has covered up and then is caught, and especially if he tries to deny or minimize it first or shift the blame until he realizes that these moves aren’t working, you should assume he is only admitting the tip of the iceberg of his misdeeds.  That’s why the questions in this approach don’t focus on asking what the teenager has done, but rather on what hypothetically he WOULD do in a given future situation.  He can’t as easily lie through these questions as ones about his own past.  When he answers questions about last night and last week, he’s been there and you haven’t, but in these situations, the hypotheticals, it is reversed – often only you have been there.  This your territory.

 

In a calm manner that does not show any feelings of being surprised, scared, angry, guilty, or embarrassed about anything either of you is saying (you don’t want to give him excuses for not being open with you), ask your teen these questions, and calmly write down his answers word for word:

 

If you had very good reason to believe you surely wouldn’t get caught or told on, where would you draw the line on watching porn by yourself?  (What things would be so harmful that you would not let yourself go over this line?  Are there any other lines you would draw and say ‘not for me’?)  How would you explain to yourself why you wouldn’t go over that line?  Would it hurt anybody else if you did cross it?  (Is there anything else you can think of that would be harmed by your crossing this line?”)  [Questions in parenthesis need only be used if the teen is vague or nonresponsive.  If his answers are vague or evasive, you can say things like, ‘Take your time – this is important. . . .  You need to be more specific. . .  If you’re not ready to think and talk about it, you’re not ready to be exposed to it.’  After the answer seems complete with enough specifics, go to the next item below, and substitute it for the underlined phrase in bold above.  Ask the very same series of questions about this situation, until you have gone to the next, and the next, and so on through all 12 situations. Feel free to take a break as needed and then come back to finish. Reschedule only if the teen seems cooperative and wants to give better answers.  Good effort and honesty are rewarded, not laziness.]

 

  1. . . .  masturbating to porn
  2. . . .  masturbating while talking with your girlfriend  [if you had one]
  3. . . .  watching porn with your girlfriend  [if you had one]
  4. . . .  seeing a girl you know undressing or undressed, on a picture or video sent to you
  5. . . .  keeping such a picture or video, and later masturbating to it
  6. . . .  sharing this picture or video with a buddy, with another girl, or posting it
  7. . . .  sharing with your girlfriend or another girl a picture or video of yourself undressed
  8. . . .  being with your girlfriend alone together undressed (or doing this with another girl,

like on a one-night stand)

  1. . . .  touching or kissing your girlfriend’s private parts without her bra and panties

                                    (or doing this with another girl, like on a one-night stand)

  1. . . .  letting a girlfriend touch or kiss your private parts

                                    (or doing this with another girl, like on a one-night stand)

  1. . . .  having full intercourse with your girlfriend (or doing this with another girl)

 

Insert into this list any questions about things not covered which you suspect your teen has done, or been tempted to do.  Leave out only those questions that have already been answered.  Be careful to appear just curious and relaxed.  Save your thunder for later.  In these questions, it is important to make your teenager think hard, to make him squirm until he can put his thoughts into words.  If he seems unwilling or unable to do this, just say, “Well, until you can convince us otherwise, and we would love it if you would, your behavior is telling us you don’t see anything harmful about this activity.  We will of course keep this in mind when we decide how much to trust you in future situations.  Okay, now, next question . . . .”

 

When you are done with each question, let him read over what you have written, make changes, and then initial his approval.  If he refuses, you note that, and put down your own initials, time and date.

 

Step Two:       Learn how your teen would react to having done each of these 12 things you have just

                        asked  him about, and whyHere you learn his ability and motivation to correct his PA mistakes, and teach himself lessons from them.  Your questions can sound something like this:

 

“What if you wake up one morning and realized that the night before you had watched porn by yourself.  Even if you knew that this would hurt you and other people, imagine you had done it anyway.

Would you tell on yourself to anybody?  Who would you tell?  Why – what would you expect to get from that person?

If this behavior violated your standard (the line you said you would draw in the previous round of questions), how would you suggest you discipline yourself, to teach yourself not to do this anymore?

Keeping in mind the amount of pleasure you had taken in doing this, what would give you an equal or greater amount of pain, so you would be teaching yourself that it wasn’t worth it?  (This way we wouldn’t have to discipline you ourselves, because your self-discipline would have beaten us to the punch.)

And if your behavior had harmed anyone else, what could you do for these people that would heal the wounds and worries you had given them?  (This too teaches you the lesson that the pleasure of this behavior isn’t worth the pain it will give you and others later.)

Are you willing to promise us that if you ever turn yourself in for this mistake, you will do this self-discipline to teach yourself a lesson?  (Or would you rather we choose the discipline for you?)

 

Here again, if he seems unwilling or unable to imagine disciplining himself effectively, you can write out for the teen in your own handwriting some version of some of these ideas to think about:

 

“We know these are hard questions. You want the sexual privileges of a mature adult.  It takes a mature adult to be able and willing to teach himself a lesson when he has hurt himself or someone else.  When young people aren’t mature enough to do it, God and society have appointed parents as the designated chain-of-command authorities to protect children, by designing and presenting discipline (learning opportunities) that their children aren’t yet ready to give themselves.   So unless you can explain how you would teach and motivate yourself not to do these things, we will reluctantly have to keep doing it ourselves. We really do hate to do this, but we have to answer to God, to society, and to each other if we don’t try our best to teach you.  It is up to you whether you learn of course, but it is up to us whether we teach you.  If you do decide to restrict yourself from certain privileges, people, situations, or electronics, your restrictions will be lighter and shorter than those we would give you, for two reasons.  First, we know that any restrictions that a teen places on himself teach him twice as much as the same restrictions placed on him by a parent.  Also, you will be earning some trust by disciplining yourself, so our trust will direct us to ease up on you.”

 

Write down what he says as before, and when you are done, you let him read over, change, and initial what you have written.  If he refuses, you note that, and enter your own initials, time and date.

 

Step Three:     Establish what will be done now to heal the wounds from the past, and to prevent any

                        more PA in the future.   Here you learn how motivated and informed he is about ways he could avoid or minimize temptation in the future.  Go over a shortened list of four sexual misbehaviors for a brief and final time:

 

“Given how much you do or don’t believe this behavior would be a good idea in your future, if you thought you could get away with them, what restrictions do you suggest you put on yourself to prevent you from:

 

  1. . . .  watching porn by yourself?
  2. . . .  using live phone or internet contact with a girl to get aroused?
  3. . . .  keeping a stash of arousing pictures or videos of people you know?
  4. . . .  doing more physical lovemaking than you promised you would?  (promised

to your girl, yourself, your parents, or hers)

 

Write down what he says as before, and when you are done, you let him read over, change, and initial what you have written.  If he refuses, you note that, and enter your own initials, time and date.

 

Step Four:      Discuss with your teen’s other parental authorities if any (divorced parents, step-parents,

                        grandparents) what situations you will trust your teen to be in, and which you won’t.  Here you solidify the united front of your parental team.

 

Figure out ways the teen can earn back the trust.  Expect him to demonstrate changes in those 13 side effects or smoke signals that have in the past indicated that his PA is a consuming fire.  This way is more helpful than just time-limited restrictions that don’t require learning or effort.  For example, tell the teen that he will get his phone privileges back gradually, depending on how much he makes progress with his grades, your inspections of his room and car and electronics, his attitude and behavior toward other family members, and his healthy involvements and activities with his friends.   You parents need to discipline yourselves to be fair, consistent, and wise in your responses to situations.  Whether you give financial, logistical, and emotional support for a planned event is a key motivator for your teen to use his best judgment.

 

You can review with the teen every week or two what you are seeing, what he is seeing, and what changes are in order with the limits, support, and consequences you give.  Don’t decide in front of your teen – always make your decisions behind closed doors.  And never bow to pressure from emotions, peers, or time deadlines that your teen or his friends could have avoided, by thinking things through in advance like adults do.

 

            Finally, remind your teen that what motivates you is what is best for all concerned in the long run, not what makes your teen happiest in the next few days.  Happiness is merely a temporary byproduct of a situation, and soon fades.  Joy, peace, courage, wisdom, and true love are much more important and enduring.  They grow from the inside, from repeated interactions with the hearts, minds, and outward role modeling of people who embody and express these fruits of the spirit.  Remember when Jesus sent his disciples out into strange towns two by two, here’s how He instructed them who to choose for companions out there:  “You shall know them by their fruits.”

About Paul Schmidt

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Lexington, KY, 502 633 2860.