Teens and Pornography
A recent Tweet about the value of computer pornography blocking software reminded me of this article. I wrote it a couple of years ago for a counseling magazine but it’s message is even more timely today.
Teens and Pornography: The Frightening New Addition
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Looking back, *Tom remembers the morning the nightmare began. It was 5:30 a.m. Summer vacation meant his 15-year-old son, *Jason, should be sleeping in. Instead, Tom was surprised to find him at the family computer. He was even more stunned when he saw what his son was doing.
“He was looking at porn,” Tom says. Specifically, Jason was watching child pornography. “It was about as hard-core as you could get.”
Jason was ashamed and embarrassed and promised his parents he would never do it again. They thought their son was “just curious” and believed him. The family had recently moved and the computer’s filtering system was down. Tom installed a new blocking program and made sure it was working.
They were devastated when they discovered their son, on at least two other occasions, had hacked through the system to find porn.
In the meantime, Jason was spiraling downward at school. Formerly a straight A student, the teen began failing his accelerated classes.
“We suspected drug use,” Tom recalls. They began drug testing their son and carefully monitoring his behavior and friends. Every drug test turned up negative.
“He proceeded to get worse until it reached a point where we couldn’t get him to do anything at home. He wouldn’t even take a shower, brush his teeth or get ready for school,” Tom remembers.
Desperate for help, the family turned to their church and was eventually referred to a counselor who specialized in adolescent therapy.
After months of therapy Jason revealed he had been looking at Internet porn for at least two years. He had tried to do it in secret at home or at a friend’s house. But the “secret” had transformed to a demon that was controlling his life.
Shawn Brooks is Executive Director of Oxbow Academy, a residential treatment center, or RTC, that specializes in treating teenage boys with sexual dependencies. A sexual dependency is a behavior that interferes with a child’s normal behavior or coping ability.
Located in rural Wales, Utah, Oxbow is one of only a handful of centers that focuses exclusively on adolescent sexual dependencies. Pornography is the common thread.
“Most parents don’t find out their kids are looking at Internet pornography unless they are able to track their use on the computer,:” he says. “If parents are watching their child’s behavior they may start picking up other cues.”
Brooks says those cues can include strange behavior regarding the Internet, such as becoming agitated it a parent enters the room while they are on the Net. Some parents report their teens stay up all night to use the computer, making the child unusually tired or irritated. Other times, behavioral issues like Jason’s may appear.
Dr. Thomas Kimball is Associate Professor and Associate Managing Director for the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He believes in some teens, viewing pornography can be as addictive as drugs.
“Behaviors can be just as addictive as substances,” he says. “There’s an experimentation phase, then abusing, depending, and addicting,” Kimball says.
Brooks agrees. “Sexual addictions are similar to drug addictions. Not everybody reacts the same,” he explains. “When a male adolescent sees pornography it releases endorphins similar to heroin.”
Brooks says just like with drugs, pornography that satisfies the user today will eventually lose its potency – requiring the addict to go for something bigger and better.
Dr. Kimball adds, “As a clinician, the biggest increase in private practice and couples therapy are couples coming in because one of them is entrenched in porn. The impact on marriages and families is immense, and it starts when people are teens.”
Statistics show most children have their first experience with Internet pornography at age 11 – usually by accident.
Jason’s Internet search stemmed from an innocent experience he had as a five-year-old with a peer. Tom says his son was not molested – the children were simply too young to know that what felt good was inappropriate. At the time, he didn’t even know the incident had occurred. His son revealed the experience during therapy.
When Jason grew older and realized his behavior was wrong he felt a tremendous amount of shame and guilt from the incident and used the Internet as a way to at first try to understand his behavior, then to feed his fantasy.
“The Internet is the number one feeder of porn addiction,” Shawn Brooks says. “Whatever your fantasy is you can find it. There is so much stimulus to support it.”
Brooks says the Internet is an especially dangerous pornography source because of the number and variety of images. “An adolescent could spend a year and never see the same picture twice,” he says. He’s aware of cases where teens actually become dehydrated because they are “glued” to the computer screen for hours.
Tom says when he and his wife learned of Jason’s experience and his Internet pornography addiction, “We really fell apart. That’s when we knew we had a crisis.”
Looking for Help
The family began looking for treatment programs that could help Jason with his addiction. “We learned there are lots of options for drug and alcohol treatments but not for sexual addictions.” The programs Tom did find did not treat adolescents.
The Internet that proved a feeding ground for their son’s addiction now became a lifeline in helping him overcome it. “We did a lot of research trying to place Jason in a program,” Tom says.
Acting on the recommendation of the educational consultant, Jason moved to an RTC which did not specialize in sexual dependencies. Instead, students were suffering from a variety of substance abuse and mental health problems.
After five months in the program, Jason felt comfortable about disclosing his own struggles. When that happened, his father says, “he became the pariah of the program.” Other students teased and tormented him and administrators worried he might be a sexual predator. “They politely asked him to leave,” Tom recalls, “but they didn’t offer any alternative programs.”
Twist of Fate
It was only by chance the family heard of Oxbow. An administrator at the program Jason was leaving happened to mention the school’s inability to treat sex specific disorders during a professional meeting. An Oxbow official was at the meeting and offered to take Jason.
“In our facility, Jason’s kind of openness is rewarded,” Brooks explains. “He’s not shunned or in danger because everyone else in the program has similar issues. It’s a safer environment for him and he’s not able to groom other students in order to victimize them.”
Because the program is sex-specific, Brooks says staff and students are held to higher accountability. “In another program where they’re not aware those tools or behaviors would go unnoticed or be considered horseplay. At Oxbow staff and residents pick them out and hold each other accountable.”
Tom says having a sex specific treatment center has made all the difference in the world. “There’s a trust that’s established between the boys that allows openness and that openness really helps these kids realize, ‘I’m not alone.’ That lets them open up and share, and sharing takes the power away.”
Is Treatment Necessary?
Shawn Brooks says there’s always a chance a teen will overcome his addiction without treatment. But there’s also a danger a child will start acting out when pictures no longer satisfy their sexual cravings.
“Juveniles are much more amenable to treatment,” Brooks notes. He says statistics show an 80-90% success rate. With adults the outlook is not nearly so positive. “The numbers are almost inverted for adults.”
Jason’s father hopes his son will be able to come home this summer. By then he will have been in treatment for 15 months.
“The earlier you make an intervention, the better your chances of healing,” Dr. Kimball states. “There’s a lot of hope with the right kinds of intervention and family support.”
Brooks adds, “The only way we can track whether or not treatment is working is recidivism rate. Do they go back to those same behaviors after treatment? To say they are cured is almost like saying an alcoholic no longer has the urge to drink anymore. We help them build interventions against urges. They may always feel the urge but they don’t act on it.”
“I’m worried,” Tom admits. “I think there’s always the fear of what could go wrong.” He adds, “But I actually think Jason seems much stronger and more aware of his emotions now than a typical adolescent his age.”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
When he thinks of his son’s future, Tom is hopeful. He wishes he’d talked more frankly about sex and relationships with his boy, wishes he’d known about the experience that sent his son to the Internet to begin with. “I think that had we been able to assure him that the experience that happened at age five was something that was just curiosity based. It wasn’t as deviant and shameful as he held it to be.”
Dr. Kimball says those kinds of conversations are exactly what help children develop healthy sexuality. “There needs to be open, age appropriate conversations about sex,” he says. “These talks have to start as soon as kids become verbal with appropriate names of body parts and answering questions. Be close to your children. Know them and how they are. Then you can gage if something’s not right.”
Brooks says parents should restrict Internet use and make sure they have filtering devices installed. Even then, be prepared for children to try to get around them. “These kids are amazing at what they can do.”
Tom says he was amazed to discover that most of Jason’s friends had unrestricted access to pornography on the Internet. “I think some parents think they are doing everything right,” he says. “But these kids are so sophisticated. They can put it on a jump drive, burn it to a CD and pass it around at school. There are so many ways for their kids to access that kind of information.”
His experience with Jason has made him a lot more aware of the dangers and the need for discussion. “I feel like I’m a lot more open with my other children,” he says.
His advice? “Don’t assume your child is any different from mine.”