DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI of Mind N Life looks at the problem of internet pornography – particularly among children – and the detrimental impact that its consumption can have in our homes.
Over the past few months, I’ve had a few distraught parents coming to my office, reporting they have recently discovered their young daughters have been watching pornography. In some cases, it had been going on for months – in one case, over a year. The age range of the children involved was seven to nine years. The parents were, as you can imagine, experiencing an avalanche of emotions – including feeling scared and helpless, and blaming themselves.
It has highlighted to me that this silent issue that is so prevalent in our society is one that needs to be addressed.
The problem of porn
Pornography destroys lives, dreams, marriages and families. It doesn’t discriminate based on race, culture, age, gender, political affiliation, religion or financial status. It plays a role in marital and family breakdowns, and generates serious problems for individuals, families and societies.
This global business is estimated to be worth almost US$100 billion, with about $12 billion of that in the US alone. In 2018, more than 5,517,000,000 hours of porn were consumed on the biggest porn site in the world. Eleven such sites are among the world’s top 300 most popular internet sites. Porn sites receives more regular traffic than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined each month. This industry is big, to say the least.
It’s often assumed that girls aren’t the ones seeking out porn. Yet, this is quickly changing – and teenage girls are significantly more likely to actively seek it than women 25 years old and above. What’s more, one study of 14-to-19-year-olds found that females who consumed pornographic videos were at a significantly greater likelihood of being victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
New research suggests that children under the age of 10 now account for one in 10 visitors to porn video sites. The average age of first exposure is 11. It’s estimated that at least 95 percent of all teens in the US have been exposed to pornography (intentionally or unintentionally), and nine out of 10 children between the ages of eight and 16.
All of these figures are alarming and disturbing.
Impact on developing brains
Pornography can have a big impact on children’s development. Here are just a few quotes by researchers on the topic (from Enough is Enough; enough.org):
- “Pornography consumption is associated with decreased brain volume in the right striatum, decreased left striatum activation, and lower functional connectivity to the prefrontal cortex.”
- “Teens and pre-teens with highly ‘plastic’ brains are compulsively using high-speed internet porn, with their porn tastes becoming out of sync with their real-life sexuality.”
- “Exposure to pornography between nine and 13 is linked to high-risk behaviours.”
- “As hours of reported pornography use increases, the amount of grey matter in the brain decreases.”
- “The exposure of children to internet pornography is having an impact on the development of harmful sexual behaviours. The current average age of the first perpetration of sexual violence is 15 to 16 years, and it’s associated with exposure to pornography.”
It’s an addiction
Another study conducted around online sexual imagery showed that 80 percent of girls aged 16 to 20 had watched pornography; of those, eight percent felt they couldn’t stop watching it and 10 percent said the content they watch over time had become more extreme. This has been the case with the families who’ve come to seek help in my office, too.
The same study showed that 97 percent of boys had viewed pornography. Of those, 23 percent said they tried to stop watching it but couldn’t. And 13 percent reported that the content they watched had “become more and more extreme”. Seven percent sought professional help because they felt their porn habit was getting out of control. It’s hard to erase those images from the mind.
This silent addiction – some have even dubbed it a “pandemic” – is like an assailant. We have to take active steps to safeguard young, innocent, developing minds from it. Two thirds of young women and almost half of young men agree: it would be easier growing up if pornography was less easy to access, they say.
How to protect your family
#1 Actively talk to your children
Unfortunately, internet pornography has become sex education for many children. But it is a poor educator – and a dangerous one. Particularly among younger children, exposure to pornography may be disturbing or upsetting. Be mindful of the age of your children.
#2 Proactively block content
If you don’t currently have blocks on Wi-Fi and on any device your child can access, do this with immediate effect. It’s important to keep access to devices in high traffic areas like the dining room; no devices should be in the bedrooms at night! We still have old-fashioned alarm clocks to help us with morning alarms.
#3 Be aware of accidental exposure
A common cause of exposure to porn is accidental. For example, when it pops up on a computer screen for a particular reason. In these cases, let them know they should turn off the computer and reach out to you. Remember, contrary to popular belief, sexually explicit materials do not enhance marriage or a couple’s intimacy; they can sometimes have a negative impact because pornography establishes false expectations for looks, intimacy and sex. And pornography is not harmless.
Other ways to help
There are many things you can do to support your child if you discover they have a problem with pornography.
- Offer constant love and support. They’re probably living with feelings of guilt and shame, and are likely devastated that you know about their problem.
- Manage your own feelings of anger, guilt, hurt and disappointment (which are natural) and be present to support your child.
- Regularly check in with them to see if they are feeling urges to visit a site. Ensure they can come and talk to you. And help them in that time by watching a movie, playing a game, reading a book together and being there for them.
- If needed, seek professional help. Be aware, though, that due to the ease of accessibility, overcoming a pornography addiction can be a challenging process and relapses may happen.
Although the statistics reveal that viewing pornography is a favourite pastime for millions of consumers, those consumers are actively contributing to an exploitative industry. This can change if we raise awareness of the detrimental impact its consumption has in our homes, on our children, in our societies and communities, and how it is imperative that we exclude porn from our lives.
This is one addiction we can safeguard our children from. We can proactively take preventative measures by being sensible with the use and access of devices and the internet for our children, and we can keep an open dialogue with them.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of international schools.
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This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.