How to Talk to Your Child About Porn

Cyber Safety Cop Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Internet has made hardcore pornography more accessible than ever before in human history. More people visit pornographic sites than Twitter, Netflix and Hulu combined. As the prevalence of pornography grows online and in popular culture, so does nearly forty years of scientific evidence that viewing pornography has catastrophic effects on our lives.

When we talk to our children about cyber safety and appropriate online behavior we must address the issue of online pornography. Talking to your child about sex is not easy. The mere thought of having to talk about pornography will produce significant levels of anxiety in most parents. Not only are you faced with the uncomfortable task of talking to your child about why they should not view pornography, but you will be fighting the prevailing popular cultural view that pornography is victimless and beneficial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Next to street drugs and alcohol abuse, pornography is becoming one of our society’s most serious public health issues.

Waiting until your child is exposed to pornography to address this issue can be heart breaking. I have spoken to parents from all over the United States, and they have shared their personal agony with me when they discovered their child was exposed to online pornography. Sometimes this exposure was unintentional, and sometimes their child was seeking it out. Their stories are all so similar. They are shocked at how easy it was for their eight-year-old to accidentally land on a hardcore pornographic site. How disturbing and extreme the sex acts portrayed on the homepage of the website were, and their sense of guilt and failure of not better protecting their child.

When we talk to our child about pornography, I don’t think it is enough to say: “Just don’t watch it.” This is not a compelling argument against all the hormones and neural chemicals flooding their brains when they look at porn. When it comes to drugs or porn, our discussion with our children (especially with boys) must explore the bigger picture. Porn is not neutral. Porn will have hurtful effects on you and others. We need to make a case that will be meaningful when your son leaves the shelter of your router’s firewall, and when they are connected to an unfiltered internet.

I have two teenaged boys. I sat down with each of them and shared four evidence based points with them: 1) Porn hurts your brain; 2) Porn hurts women; 3) Porn hurts families; and 4) Porn fuels human trafficking. I will lay out the case of each point and then share how I presented it to my children.

1. Pornography Hurts Your Brain

What does cocaine and online pornography have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit. Deep inside your brain is a thing called the “reward pathway.” [1] The reward pathway is an important mechanism for our survival. It connects behavior to a feeling of wellness or pleasure. It does this by releasing chemicals in your brain—mainly one called dopamine, but also others like oxytocin. [2] These neural chemicals are very powerful, and for good reason. It promotes or rewards activities that are essential to life like eating, sex (procreation), or for accomplishing a task that you have worked hard for (hunting and gathering). [3] These chemicals are what makes us feel happy and euphoric. Unfortunately, they can be hijacked by street drugs and pornography. [4]

Street drugs like cocaine and heroin make the user feel high by triggering the reward pathway to release high levels of dopamine. Viewing pornography uses the exact same reward pathway as hard street drugs. Remember, the reward pathway’s purpose is to lead the user back to the behavior that triggered the chemical release. The surge of dopamine through the brain does more than make the user achieve a euphoric high, it helps to create new brain pathways. In other words, it changes their brain. The more a drug user injects heroin or a porn user watches porn, the more those pathways get wired into the brain, making it easier and easier for the person to turn back to using, whether they want to or not. [5] This is called addiction. If an adolescent is watching porn, these brain changes and neural pathway connections to porn are occurring at a crucial time in their cognitive brain development.

Yes, you can become addicted to watching porn. Porn also has the same trajectory as other substance addictions. Over time, a junkie will eventually require more and more of a drug to get a buzz or even just feel normal. Similarly, porn users can quickly build up a tolerance as their brains adapt to the high levels of dopamine. [6] In other words, even though porn is still releasing dopamine into the brain, the user can’t feel its effects as much. As a result, many porn users have to find more porn, find it more often, or find a more extreme version—or all three—to generate even more dopamine to feel excited. [7]

2. Pornography Hurts Women

In almost all porn, women are nothing more than objects used to satisfy the sexual desires of the man. Women in the video are depicted as being happy or turned-on with whatever the man wants to do even if it’s painful or humiliating. A study of the most popular porn videos found that nine scenes out of 10 showed women being verbally or physically abused, yet the female victims almost always responded with either pleasure or appeared to be neutral. [8] As a result, male porn users’ ideas of what sex or loving relationships should look like are often warped.

In an anonymous survey of 247 Canadian junior high school students whose average age was 14 years, James Check and Kristin Maxwell (1992) report that 87% of the boys and 61% of the girls said they had viewed video-pornography. The average age at first exposure was just under 12 years. 33% of the boys versus only 2% of the girls reported watching pornography once a month or more often. As well, 29% of the boys versus 1% of the girls reported that pornography was the source that had provided them with the most useful information about sex (i.e., more than parents, school, friends, etc.). Finally, boys who were frequent consumers of pornography and/or reported learning a lot from pornography were also more likely to say that is was “OK” to hold a girl down and force her to have intercourse. [9]

3. Pornography Hurts Marriages and Families

Research has found that marriages in which one person has a porn problem or sexual compulsion are often plagued by less intimacy and sensitivity, as well as more anxiety, secrecy, isolation, and dysfunction in the relationship. [10] Studies have found that married porn users are more likely than non-users to have sex with someone other than their spouse. [11]

When I cover the effects of pornography in my parent seminar I often see women in my audience dabbing tears from their eyes. They come up to me after the talk and share how their marriage is failing, or has failed, because their husband is addicted to online pornography and now they are trying to protect their son from it. Their spouse’s frequent use of pornography led to a loss of trust and intimacy between them. In a survey of members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers taken in 2002, 62 percent of the divorce attorneys surveyed said that obsession with porn had been a significant factor in divorces cases they had handled in the last year. [12]

4. Pornography Fuels Human Trafficking

On the nightly news, we often hear horrifying stories of sex trafficking here in the United States and around the world. We are appalled and disgusted by those who would hold women and children against their will for nothing more than objects for sexual pleasure. I volunteer and support Agape International Missions in Cambodia. I have traveled to Cambodia several times and seen firsthand the physical and emotional toll this evil inflicts on the most vulnerable. At the same time we live in a culture that celebrates pornography as a banner example of the First Amendment. These opposing views of sex trafficking and pornography must be addressed.

There is a connection between “mainstream” pornography sites on the internet and desire of child sex trafficking. The $100-billion pornography industry is fueling the appetite for children. [13] Teenage girls now make up the biggest slice of viewable porn. A Google Trends analysis indicates that searches for ‘Teen Porn’ have more than tripled between 2005-2013, and teen porn was the fastest growing genre over this period…[reaching an] estimated 500,000 daily in March 2013, representing approximately one-third of total daily searches for pornographic web sites. [14]

In Melissa Farley’s 2007 article, “Renting an Organ for Ten Minutes:’ What Tricks Tell us about Prostitution, Pornography, and Trafficking,” she interviewed 854 women in prostitution in 9 countries. Almost half (49 percent) of the women she interviewed said pornography was made of them while they were in prostitution. [15]

If you are watching pornography you are supporting a system that is helping enslave men, women, and children all over the world.

To help illustrate this final point, I have included Rescue:Freedom International’s video, “Refuse to click.” [16]


Putting it All Together: The Conversation

I want to give you a strong argument against pornography in your child's life and in your life too. When you talk to your child, explain to them why you choose not to view pornography. Make your reasons for not watching pornography personal. The strongest arguments come from the heart. This is how I shared my commitment to not watching porn with two teenaged boys:

"I have chosen to not watch pornography for several reasons. I want to share them with you and explain why pornography is destructive, and if you let it into your life, it can hurt you and the people you love. My reasons are not my opinion but based on a lot of science and research, which I can show you later if you are interested.

First, I won't watch porn for the same reasons I won't use street drugs like heroin. Viewing pornography can lead to addiction. Science has shown us that the same chemicals that get released in the brain when someone does drugs, are the same chemicals that get released when they watch porn. Addiction destroys you from the inside out and that includes your health, your job, your friendships, and your family. I work hard to support you and this family. My ability to do that comes from having a healthy mind and soul. Addiction, of any kind, hurts and enslaves you.

Second, pornography hurts women. I respect your mother and all women. Pornography objectifies women. That means, women are seen as nothing more than a physical object, made less than human, and their only value is to sexually satisfy men even when the sex acts are painful or degrading. Porn wants you to believe this is what love looks like. They are trying to sell you a destructive lie.

Third, I don't watch porn because I love you and your mother. Watching porn opens up your mind and heart to the idea of having a relationship with someone other than the person you are married to. I love you and your mother too much to do anything that would hurt you, your mom, or break up this family. 

Fourth, I don’t watch porn because some of the women who are in these videos are not there because they want to be. Some of them are being forced to do it. I refuse to be a part of a system that enslaves people and steals their dignity. When someone clicks on a porn video, they are hurting someone. If no one was watching pornography, those girls would be free. Because we respect women, we never ask a girl to send us a nude image of herself. (Perhaps play “Refuse to Click” video for your child if you think it is appropriate for them).

I have put filters on your devices and on the computer to keep you from purposefully or accidentally watching porn. I know that I can't guarantee that you will not see it somewhere else, like on a friend's device. Just like being offered drugs, I can't be with you all the time to make sure you make the right decision. Ultimately, it will be up to you. You cannot watch pornography without someone getting hurt. 

I want you to be prepared when someone offers to show you pornography of any kind. What do you think would be a good way to say no?"

"No, I don't want to see it because porn hurts women," or
"No, don't send me that image/video, I don't want those images in my mind."


[1] Hilton, D. L., And Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; (Http://Www.Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov/Pmc/Articles/Pmc3050060/) Bostwick, J. M. And Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated With Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is A Brain Disease And It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.

[3] Bostwick, J. M. And Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated With Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Balfour, M. E., Yu, L., And Coolen, L. M. (2004). Sexual Behavior And Sex-Associated Environmental Cues Activate The Mesolimbic System In Male Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology 29, 4:718–730; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is A Brain Disease And It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.

[2] Hedges, V. L., Chakravarty, S., Nestler, E. J., And Meisel, R. L. (2009). Deltafosb Overexpression In The Nucleus Accumbens Enhances Sexual Reward In Female Syrian Hamsters. Genes Brain And Behavior 8, 4: 442–449; Bostwick, J. M. And Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated With Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108; Mick, T. M. And Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. Cns Spectrums, 11(12):944-955; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is A Brain Disease And It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.

[4] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 106; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.

[5] Angres, D. H. And Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease Of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, And Recovery. Disease-A-Month 54: 696–721; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 102.

[6] Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., And Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural And Drug Rewards Act On Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms With DeltaFosB As A Key Mediator. Journal Of Neuroscience 33, 8: 3434-3442; Angres, D. H. And Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease Of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, And Recovery. Disease-A-Month 54: 696–721; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 105; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, And Our Families. New York: Henry Hold And Co., 75.

[7] Angres, D. H. And Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease Of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, And Recovery. Disease-A-Month 54: 696–721; Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence Of Unrestrained Access To Erotica On Adolescents’ And Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal Of Adolescent Health 27, 2: 41–44.

[8] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect On Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner And D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs Of Pornography: A Collection Of Papers (Pp. 89-110). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Bergner, R. And Bridges, A. J. (2002). The Significance Of Heavy Pornography Involvement For Romantic Partners: Research And Clinical Implications. Sex And Marital Therapy 28, 3: 193–206.

[9] Kristin Maxwell and James Check, “Adolescents' rape myth attitudes and acceptance of forced sexual intercourse.” Paper presented at the Canadian Psychological Association Meetings, Quebec, June 1992.

[10] Wildmom-White, M. L. And Young, J. S. (2002). Family-Of-Origin Characteristics Among Women Married To Sexually Addicted Men. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 9, 4: 263–73.

[11] Wright, P. (2013). U.S. Males And Pornography, 1973–2010: Consumption, Predictors, Correlates. Journal Of Sex Research 50, 1: 60–71; Zillmann, D. And Bryant, J. (1988). Effects Of Prolonged Consumption Of Pornography On Family Values. Journal Of Family Issues 9: 518–554.

[12] Dedmon, J. (2002). Is The Internet Bad For Your Marriage? Online Affairs, Pornographic Sites Playing Greater Role In Divorces. Press Release From The Dilenschneider Group, Inc.

[13] Watson, Connie. "The Globalization of Sex." CBC News. CBC/Radio Canada, 18 June 2009. Web. 06 Jan. 2015.

[14] Dines, Gail, and David Levy. "Good Cop Bad Cop: Corporate Political Strategy in the Porn Industry." Web log post. Organizations and Social Change. N.p., 13 Nov. 2013. Web.

[15] Farley, M. “Renting an Organ for Ten Minutes: What Tricks Tell us about Prostitution, Pornography, and Trafficking.” (2007)

[16] Viewed on March 4, 2017,

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