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Pornography and the developing mind

An article I ran across in a popular newspaper reminded me of an incident that occurred during my first clinical experience. The article, too disturbing for me to link to on this blog, was an interview with a man who runs a large treatment facility in the UK for porn addicts, many of whom are young, even age 8.

I was the intern therapist at a shelter for female abuse victims and their families. A woman had two young boys, about 12 and 13, and the director was concerned that they were starting to behave in a sexually aggressive manner toward the women at the shelter. They were making inappropriate suggestions, testing boundaries, and it was getting to be a real concern. The director was stumped, guessing perhaps that the boys had been abused when younger.

My response was, "Doesn't mom work late?" Yes. "Didn't you just give them a computer with internet?" Yes. "Well," I said, "the question isn't whether they are looking up porn, it's how many hours they're spending doing it." The director's jaw dropped, along with her secretary's. The director was no fool, she was just from a different generation.

Since the late 20th century, except among some old-school feminists, there has generally been a wink and nod acknowledgement of private porn use. This is similar to current views on marijuana. Now, marijuana has never been healthy for developing minds, because it promotes a fake sense of well-being that gradually becomes a substitute for the real thing. But children of the 70's are ignorant that their children's cheap weed is 5 times as powerful as what they smoked, and increasingly accounts for hospital admissions for psychosis. Likewise, porn has never been healthy, because fake intimacy leads to intimacy problems. But, likewise, since the early-internet days of my first clinical experience, porn has moved from Yahoo searches for photos, to hard-core video porn on any smartphone in the back of any schoolbus.

The modern teenage internet is largely a blend of sexualized social media (already a total lie) with easy and regular access to extremely graphic porn. This is reality. How do you respond to it? If you are a parent, you know that most children who cross the street without looking don't get hit by cars--yet did you neglect to teach them to look both ways? It's unlikely, until it's your kid. So, you calmly educate, and then remain vigilant as they grow.

Practical vigilance. My first piece of advice is to monitor and limit social media use. In the past year I have treated three suicidal young girls who were humiliated by boyfriends who distributed their "sexts" around school. Another tip is to restrict wireless internet access at home by password, with plug-in access for homework on a "family" port in a visible location.

The most important element, however, is that your children must know that they can come to you with their problems and screw-ups, and that you will not shame them. A child's fear of shaming sometimes comes from cruel parents, but much more often is the gradual result of uninvolved parents whose children, as a result, don't know them or trust them.

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