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Pornography: Why It's Crucial to Respond with Love and Know the Difference Between Addiction and Habit

While the following excerpt addresses understanding children and their motivations for pornography use, many of these principles apply to other loved ones. For more resources, videos, and tools for individuals, spouses, and families, visit the Church's website ChurchofJesusChrist.org/addressing-pornography.

Most pornography problems are more about maturation than they are about addiction.

James and Kelly have noticed that their 14-year-old son, Connor, has become increasingly moody and unhappy. Connor had always been their happy-go-lucky boy who talked to his parents about everything. Initially, they chalked up his mood shift to typical adjustment issues in the junior high years. Plus, they had recently moved and Connor was still getting situated with new friends and their new neighborhood. However, as the weeks passed, they grew increasingly concerned about Connor’s mood and the irritable ways he treated his younger siblings. One night after a heated exchange between Connor and his younger sister, James and Kelly confronted Connor about his recent behavior.

“Connor, what’s going on with you?” asked his father.

“What do you mean?” said Connor, still visibly upset about his younger sister coming into his room.

“You seem so upset all the time,” his mother added. “Is everything okay at school?”

“School is fine,” replied Connor.

“What has you so upset?” asked James. “C’mon, bud, you can tell us.”

Tears welled up in Connor’s eyes. “If I tell you, you’ll never look at me the same again.”

“What are you talking about?” replied Kelly, trying not to sound too concerned.

“I look at porn and I don’t think I can stop,” whispered Connor as his emotions overwhelmed him.

Kelly and James were stunned. They didn’t let their kids have the internet on their cell phones, and they kept their home computer in the family room. How could this happen to our kid? They then listened to Connor as he told them about how he had been accessing pornography since he was 12 years old through social media sites on his cell phone even without an internet browser. They wondered what their next steps should be. Does Connor have an addiction? Does he need a therapist? Is this normal behavior? How should they handle this as parents?

Situations like Connor’s are becoming increasingly common among our children these days. Despite the fact that pornography is becoming a common part of our modern culture, most parents still feel ill-equipped to handle these situations when they come up with their children. . . .

Here are some guiding principles for how to safeguard your children from pornography and how to respond when a child is exposed to or becomes involved with pornography. In particular, we suggest five proactive strategies we can use to help address the issue of pornography in our homes and in our children’s lives. These include (1) learning about pornography, (2) preventing early exposure, (3) replacing myth with truth (which are discussed in a separate article here) as well as (4) diagnosing the problem correctly, and (5) being patient and fostering long-term change.

Diagnosing the Problem Correctly.

Most discussions of pornography today involve some mention of addiction. While this type of warning has heightened our awareness of the ways that pornography use can become habit-forming or obsessive in someone’s life, parents should be careful to not confuse the possibility of addiction with the assumption of addiction. Both experts and Church leaders have pointed out that while some individuals can become addicted to pornography, the majority of pornography users are not addicted. President Dallin H. Oaks recently taught, “Not everyone who uses pornography willfully is addicted to it. In fact most young men and young women who struggle with pornography are not addicted.” He went on to say, “That is a very important distinction to make—not just for parents, spouses, and leaders who desire to help but also for those who struggle with this problem. . . . If a behavior is incorrectly classified as an addiction, the user may think he or she has lost agency and capacity to overcome the problem. . . . Having a better understanding of where a person is in the process will also allow a better understanding of what action is necessary to recover” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Recovering from the Trap of Pornography,” Ensign, Oct. 2015).

All of our children experience the power of the sexual response triggered during puberty long before they have the full emotional or spiritual maturity to make sense of it. But if we move too quickly and assume that any involvement with pornography is an addiction, we actually are going to shut down our ability to have openness and dialogue, and often the problem goes unaddressed for several years.

Levels of Involvement

How do you know if your child has a pornography addiction? First, true addiction to pornography is quite rare in teens and more of a possibility in adults who have had years of obsessive use. The answer to this question is complex and differs for each person. Everyone’s history, level of use, and degree of dependency with pornography is different—simply put, it’s different for everyone. The other thing that is tricky with answering this question is that we tend to think about addiction like a light switch that is either on or off—thus we think someone is either “addicted” or they’re not. But habit-forming behavior isn’t like a basic light switch that only turns on or off. Rather, it is more like a dimmer switch that gradually changes from light to dark and back again. In short, habits differ by degree, not by kind.

Let’s talk about a child’s brain for a moment. The brain is involved in every decision our children make—good or bad. The key to their success in overcoming unwanted habits is in learning how to train and direct the brain so that it helps them repeatedly make the choices they (and you) desire most. Think about your children and the sometimes frustrating process they go through when learning their first simple skills: their tiny fingers struggling to tie their shoes or write their name for the first time. As parents we anxiously watched as our child wobbled on a bicycle down the sidewalk. At first, these tasks are difficult and time-consuming. But with practice, the tasks get easier and easier until something almost magical happens—they don’t have to think about it anymore; it becomes seemingly natural and automatic. Your child has created a habit.

Now back to the question, “How do you know if your child has an addiction?” As a parent, when you understand how your child’s habits are formed, the question is better asked: “How deep of a habit has my child formed?” There are two primary things to consider as you try to answer this question—your child’s behaviors and his or her motivations. With behavior, how frequently does your child look at pornography? Is it every day or only once in a while? For how long has he or she looked at pornography? Has it been for three years or three months? With motivations, why does your child look at pornography? What brings him or her back to looking at pornography? . . .

Only you as a parent can judge where your child is on the habit-forming spectrum. But whether you feel your child has a bad habit or if you are sure it’s a full-blown addiction, addressing the issue directly and compassionately will help. If you feel your child has a bad habit, then teaching him or her about the harms of pornography and the benefits of healthy sexuality can prevent the pattern from getting worse and out of control. If you suspect that it is an obsession or addiction, then it may be helpful to get some outside help from a trained and experienced professional.

Be Patient and Focus on Long-Term Patterns.

In Latter-day Saint culture, there are some aspects of the gospel in which we tend to acknowledge the process of progression, and there are others in which we seem to acknowledge only perfection. In relation to pornography, we rarely hear about a maturation process. All of our children, just like each of us, will learn through some trial and error in their sexual development. It may not be the same for every person, but each of us has some maturity to gain in this part of life. Keeping this maturation perspective in mind is particularly needed when addressing pornography issues among teens and young adults. As Dr. Mark Butler, an expert in pornography treatment, has stated, “The adolescent brain is not fully formed, and that leads to certain issues like impulse control and lack of forward thinking. . . . A spiritually sincere, striving teen can become crippled by overwhelming guilt when he encounters weaknesses that he is uniquely vulnerable to having with that still-adolescent brain. It is so critical that, alongside teaching the commandments, you teach adolescents the Atonement—that it’s there for the purpose of developmental patience in life.”

Beyond natural curiosity, children often turn to pornography out of an inability to effectively cope with life stress and negative emotions. If this is the case, then children may need some help with identifying triggers and disrupting the patterns they follow when they become depressed, anxious, or stressed. There are a number of things you can do to help your child develop better coping skills. First, teach your child that both positive and negative emotions are a part of everyday life and that it is normal to occasionally experience negative feelings such as sadness, anger, frustration, or hurt. You can also encourage your child to take proactive steps to solve the problems contributing to stress and, when possible and appropriate, reduce your demands on your child. Therapists and counselors teach that as parents we should help our children develop effective approaches to managing stress in their lives, such as talking with close family and friends, exercising, listening to positive music, and spiritual practices like prayer, scripture study, and service.

Although it will be natural for our children to feel guilt after viewing pornography, we should be careful not to shame our children about what they have done. Therapists have long distinguished between guilt and shame. Guilt is a recognition by our child that his or her behavior is wrong and is not in harmony with his or her values. Guilt is a natural and normal part of growing up and a healthy response to poor choices that can help motivate needed changes in our child’s life. Shame, on the other hand, is when our child focuses on himself or herself as a bad person and diminishes his or her sense of self-worth—which discourages hope for change and doesn’t motivate change. As parents, we need to be careful not to exacerbate feelings of shame in our children. As they experience our positive support, they will feel more hope that they can learn from their mistakes and make positive changes in their lives.

Lead image from Getty Images

Get more insightful tips on how to teach your children about sex, modesty, pornography, and healthy sexuality in A Better Way to Teach Kids about Sex.

This guide for parents is a scientifically informed Latter-day Saint perspective on how to talk with children in an open and faith-based way to help them build a foundation of communication and trust, understand the physical body, and gain a healthy approach to sexual wholeness.

  • Learn the spiritual, physical, and emotional dimensions of sexual wholeness to gain a well-rounded understanding of the role of sexuality in God's plan for His children.
  • Find expert advice that's in harmony with gospel insights for specific sexual issues such as pornography, self-touching and masturbations, same-sex attraction, and dating.
  • Gain confidence in discussing sensitive topics with your children through counsel tailored for parents of children of all ages—it's never too early or too late to start!
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