Recently I have been researching the issue of children, teens and today’s easy access to online pornography. The topic was brought to light by a 13 year-old in Britain who was recently placed on the Sex Offender Registry, simply due to being found to have accessed a disturbing volume of pornographic materials on his laptop computer, while his parents quietly assumed he had been doing homework. This boy will unquestionably live with this label for years to come, and at an age where other critical development usually takes place for adolescents, such as the building of social relationships, involvement in school and community activities, and further discovering the likes and dislikes that guide a young person’s direction on into the future.

It may seem like an obvious question, but exactly why is exposure to pornography for a young person so harmful? Yes, being on an offender’s registry is clearly something one would wish to avoid at all costs, but such a designation is rare for someone under 18 in Canada. So why would it likely be in a parent’s best interest to actively monitor internet use with their children? The answer largely comes from what a person comes to accept as “normal” and healthy behavior. Throughout our entire lives, but especially during the first 18 years of life we are doing our best to make sense of the world around us, and gain an understanding of which behavior is healthy, which is acceptable, and which is not healthy for us and others around us.

Most parents wish to help their children have an understanding of what it means to live a happy life, including having healthy, enjoyable relationships with others, and including those of the opposite gender. Learning how to honour oneself and a significant other in a relationship is vitally important. For example, there are numerous possible focuses in a romantic relationship: your own needs, those of your partner, quality of connection, sharing, trust, intimacy, and a host of other possibilities are in play, and each person must decide upon their own priorities in a relationship. My suggestion is that significant exposure to pornography has the potential to dramatically impact what a young person comes to adopt as important relationship priorities, as well as what a truly healthy, safe relationship looks and feels like.

Pornography tends to emphasize and highlight the importance of self-gratification, and placing one’s own needs and desires first. If the single most important purpose of an intimate relationship is “to make me feel good”, then the needs of others will naturally become far less important, if at all. However, there is a much darker side to the easy access to pornography. The example of the boy in Britain provides evidence that an inherent attraction of such materials comes through wishing to dig deeper into what can quickly become a dark, deviant world. As he reported, he stopped spending time with friends simply so he could return home to further explore this online world. There was no realization that he had “crossed the line” when he started exploring child pornography and intensely violent scenes, having not yet reached a level of maturity which tells him such images are repulsive and harmful, both to himself and others.

Wishing to act upon fantasies created through viewing of all these materials is ultimately what creates the greatest degree of harm to a young person, particularly if a fixation upon deviance has become cemented in place. Future intimate relationships will be threatened by such unhealthy norms, and the risk of abuse toward others including young children will increase significantly, studies continually show. Clearly, if we wish as a society to raise children and teens with healthy ideas about relationships with others, and minimize the chances others will be harmed by one’s own private fantasy world, there is a need to be aware of the internet habits of those in the household, and provide support and feedback as required. Next week, I will share some ways to do this effectively and responsibly, while respecting each child’s needs for respect and independence.