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June 2, 2005

Teens and Internet Porn: What a Parent Can Do

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/teens_and_internet_porn_what_a_parent_can_do_20050603

When parents catch their children -- typically boys -- looking at porn online, they usually become alarmed. That's understandable. But those who respond by turning to filtering and blocking software should realize this strategy only does so much.

The flood of female images will likely make its way through somehow. And if you manage to slow it down, there are still friends and their computers to contend with.

Kids, whether they surf or not, live in a larger culture that relies on sex, and uses the objectified female form to engage them. So what can concerned adults do? How do we deconstruct the cultural pressures imposed on growing girls and boys? How do we counteract the insidious effects of these forces?

To begin with, consider Internet porn within the larger social and cultural context. Although our collective tendency is to blame parents or to evaluate whether a teen's behavior is prurient, this problem is larger than the family. There are outside forces at work. We live in a culture that infuses sex into everything we see, hear and know. And it does so in distinct ways for each gender.

As boys grow up, they learn from the images they absorb. They discern that they are the leading men in their life stories and that others are there to enhance their sense of identity. Some boys are helped to resist these lessons. But for the most part, by the time they reach adolescence, boys have learned to objectify the "other" -- and in the case of the female body, to break it down to component parts for their pleasure. The female is not fully human. She is an object. The goal is not to know her, but to possess her, use her and move on, with variety as the aim. Boys are learning to be consumers of female bodies.

Girls internalize these same influences; there is no avoiding them. These messages are organized and pervasive, established through networks of power, namely, media in all its manifestations, including advertising, as well as consumerism, fundamentalism and biological essentialism. Girls, as a result, become self-objectifying. They act against themselves via anorexia, cutting, self-scrutiny, excessive body-beauty concerns and comparisons to other girls. These are the effects of living within this cultural matrix.

How do we take on such issues that are larger than we are? The problem may seem so daunting, powerful, and ubiquitous that nothing can be done. But adults can help in several ways.

First, we should acknowledge that there is no avoiding the matrix. As pure as our children start out, they have entered the world and been shaped by it. But it's not as though they have disappeared or have been inextricably saturated by these cultural influences. Their better selves can re-emerge with intentional force. The key rests in dialogue. Young people can speak with the adults in their lives about the things they believe in and want out of relationships.

A recent clinical experience with a 14-year-old boy shows how this works. The boy had been caught viewing porn by his father. He described his parents' worry and their demands that he stop. He expressed every intention to continue. That led to a discussion about what effects this habit was having on him.

At first, the boy insisted he was unaffected, but he eventually acknowledged that he had, in fact, begun to view girls differently, becoming more focused on their bodies. This was the first of many conversations in which, over time, he slowly reconnected with his best intentions toward girls. This is not to suggest that he stopped viewing porn or that his parents did not continue to feel the burden of worry. As we continued to work with his family, we acknowledged with them the complexity of his world, striving to help him hold onto his different intentions.

When we ask teens to speak to their values and intentions, they learn as they speak, in a reflexive process. The goal of dialogue is not to lead kids toward or away from a normative standard, but rather to make space for them to explore their own personally held commitments. With these aims in mind, adults -- meaning parents, other family members, counselors or friends -- can help teens by engaging them in questions such as the following:

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• What effect does viewing porn have on your ideas about girls and women?

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• What are the ideas you hold about girls and women that are not represented by pornography?

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• What, besides their bodies, do you notice about the girls and women you know?

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• How hard would you say it is, given the environment we live in, for girls and women not to be preoccupied with body image?

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• What values do you hold that are still in place?

If the engaged adult isn't a parent, there are questions whose answers can help teens reconnect with their parents. Some examples are:

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• How can we begin to include your parents in this conversation?

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• How might we assist your parents in the worry they might experience?

As teens begin to enter into dialogue with their parents, their faith and their teachers, they articulate values and intentions in regard to girls and women. Our purpose as professionals is a goal that's shared with other adults involved in the lives of teens. We want to keep them fully engaged and connected to their worldview in a way that ultimately supports a more three-dimensional view of girls and women.

David Marsten is the director of Miracle Mile Community Practice and is in private practice in Los Angeles. He can be reached at davidmarsten@sbcglobal.net. Inez Tiger is a licensed marriage and family therapist and middle school counselor at Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy. She can be reached at itiger@tbala.org.

 

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