Your Family Matters - A pervasive toxin is attacking our kids

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Parents, as your teens head back to school, you should know that this year they are at a greater risk than ever for encountering a toxic substance proven to traumatize the brain, impair concentration, decrease cognitive functioning, induce depression and anxiety, and reduce pleasure in everyday life. Rising in use each year, this substance is attacking our kids’ ability to learn, thrive and be happy. And you are the most powerful force in their lives to protect them from it.

Whether through their smartphones, tablets, laptops or gaming devices — or perhaps through their friends’ devices — pornography is actively searching for them even if they are not searching for it themselves. And it’s finding them. Did you know, moms and dads, that the largest population of internet pornography users is 12- to 17-year-olds? The average age of first exposure to hardcore pornography is 11. By age 18, only a small minority of boys and girls have not had multiple exposures to this toxic and highly addictive substance.

Most parents would agree that these are not reassuring statistics. Our priests confirm that the porn epidemic is raging stronger than ever, based on what they are hearing in the confessional. Studies show that teen boys are the biggest group at risk for developing porn addiction, with girls’ usage rising year by year. So how can you help protect your teens?

Here are some common tips:       

    • Conversation. Yes, you must talk to your kids and teens about porn and what to do when they encounter it (click away, come tell you). But don’t just have The Porn Talk with your teens as if this were a one-time event. An ongoing conversation about respect and dignity between men and women, about proper boundaries and about love, marriage and authentic sexuality are crucial for helping form their understanding of what is degrading and unhealthy and what is good, true and beautiful. Guides for how to talk to your kids about porn can be found on both and
    • Install filtering software like Covenant Eyes.
    • Set and enforce screen limits, making sure there’s plenty of non-screen time each day for other healthy activities. (See the American Association of Pediatrics’ screen-time guidelines.)
    • Don’t let your teens isolate with the internet or keep their devices in their bedrooms.
    • Set parental controls. Handy tutorials on show you how to do this on Netflix, Google, Snapchat, Xbox, Instagram and Apple devices.

Here are some uncommon but, I submit, very effective tips to help create a family culture that can inoculate your child against porn:

  • Have a sexy marriage in which they clearly see an example of joyful, rightly ordered affection at home. Let them see you pursue, compliment and appreciate each other, even smooch in front of them. (They may say “ewww!” That’s totally OK.) Attend a Living in Love retreat or revisit some of my past columns about marriage enrichment for more ideas.
  • Start a Read Aloud Revival in your family. The brain benefits of reading aloud extend well past early childhood into the teen years and even adulthood. A family that reads aloud together builds relationships, communication and connection through a shared culture of stories, inside jokes and references. Sharing good literature can springboard meaningful discussions that help your child develop their moral framework. And this helps filter moral choices more effectively than any software ever can. Book lists, brain benefits, and support can be found in the Read Aloud Revival podcast and at
  • Appreciate fine art. The best defense is a good offense. And to counter the onslaught of offensive images, why not get intentional about exposing your family to the good, the true and the beautiful through admiring the masterpieces of fine art together?

The pornography epidemic is spreading, but parents are in a privileged position to warn their children, to protect them from its harms, and to help them recover if they fall into it. 

Northwest Catholic - September 2017

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is