I’ve just spent four years researching how to reduce the negative effects of exposure to pornography and sexualised social media among young people. With solid evidence at my fingertips, I’m now ready to say some things that can give hope in this disturbing and confronting arena.
The same stats keep recurring – 70 per cent of males and 20 per cent of females struggle with pornography use. This is true in Christian schools, our churches and among ministry staff. Pornography negatively impacts individuals, their relationships and society. Males are more likely to initiate sexualised behaviour over social media (called “sexting”), while females are more likely to be targets of sexting. If this is news to you – please check out the resistporn.org site, which has the research.
For now, it is sufficient to say that there is a long list of people in our ranks affected by pornography. No one is immune, and the problem remains urgent. My quest has been to help find effective solutions.
There is no easy fix or silver bullet, but there are effective ways forward.
First, some sobering news. Porn addiction is real. The more frequently a person uses pornography, the harder it is to stop. Tragically, I saw this first-hand, when a high number of teenagers in my studies could not reduce their pornography use – even though their desire and efforts to stop were substantial.
Neurologists know why. The brain adapts to the cocktail of hormones produced during sexual arousal. Neural pathways are ingrained, memories are altered, self-control is reduced and the volume of healthy brain matter shrinks. Porn user brains resemble those of drug addicts. It’s very serious, and if you have been struggling to kick the porn habit, you are likely an addict and need serious help.
Another challenge: people’s online sexualised behaviours, including using pornography, are amplified by other online behaviours. Social media is making us narcissists, and this is a game-changer. Narcissism increases with the quantity of use and earlier starting age of self-promoting apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and Facebook.
Why is this a problem? Narcissism distorts and inflates self-esteem, increases permissive sexual attitudes, leading to more sexting and poorer social conduct. Narcissism deteriorates the moral compass and impedes healthy relationships. Friends become vehicles of adulation and praise, existing to supply the narcissist with the recognition their false reality demands. This is true not just for males, but females – who are using social media more.
So, is there a way forward? Yes, but it is a process using multiple strategies. What I describe below is helpful for both preventing and reducing problematic pornography and social media behaviours. These strategies dovetail together. Each on its own is not enough.
It is vital we create good narratives, or – in the case of the “affected” – replace the poor narratives. This is through:
- education about the problems and risks associated with pornography, the internet, social media, and narcissism;
- education about good sexuality, healthy relationships, improving the common good;
- education about God’s will from the Scriptures for living as his disciples. Christ renews the mind. His gospel teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness. This starts with repentance and faith.
For young people, parents are key. For students, this involves their teachers and curriculum. For church communities – programs, preaching and Bible studies.
Rules, access restrictions and the removal of triggers are strategies to protect the unexposed and contain those at risk. The fact is we are sexual, and pornography is very tempting. It delivers a quick high. Unfortunately, too many young people discover this privately and in isolation. With an average first-time exposure age of 11½, they develop compulsive behaviours and corrupted sexuality well before anyone warns them of the risks.
People need to regularly communicate with their peers about these matters. Regardless of our age, our perception of what is normal to others is highly influential. This is called normalisation.
The influence of FOMO (fear of missing out), and imitating others’ conduct, shapes our attitudes and behaviours. Regular transparent engagement, with shared critical thinking, challenges these narratives. “Iron sharpens iron”, and good dialogue dispels the sense of “everyone is into this” while you co-operatively tackle the issues.
As mentioned, pornography is addictive. You are deceived if you think you’ll conquer the problem on your own. The challenge is in proportion to the years of investing in that porn habit. Get help from a therapist! They are specialists – experienced at helping people change, like life coaches.
Ultimately, the problems from pornography and social media are real and urgent. They pervade our communities like cancer. We can confront and beat them, by committing to these strategies.
Many people like myself are producing resources to prevent and reduce the negative effects from pornography and social media. But please - don’t just wait for us. What’s stopping you from using these strategies now within your own context?
Marshall Ballantine-Jones is an ordained Anglican minister who has conducted PhD research at the University of Sydney’s medical school on the use and effects of pornography.