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How to build your children’s resilience to porn

Gail Dines wants to help parents counter messages some experts say are altering sexual norms.

Dr. Gail Dines has launched free online training courses to teach parents how to help their children navigate a hyper-sexualized culture and build their resistance to pornography.
Dr. Gail Dines has launched free online training courses to teach parents how to help their children navigate a hyper-sexualized culture and build their resistance to pornography.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

If you think that your child will never accidentally see online porn, that your parental control filters are impenetrable, that your little darling will resist a peek at the noisy spectacle on his friend’s cellphone, then Dr. Gail Dines has a bridge to sell you.

With pornography free on every device at your fingertips — go ahead, Google it — a curious adolescent can probably find it faster than his parents can block it. Many first encounter it around age 11, studies have found; most have seen it by 18.

The risk has only intensified during the pandemic, which often keeps young people at home and isolated, tied to screens that often provide their only lifeline to peers or school.

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“Kids are more at risk than they’ve ever been. This is a pandemic within a pandemic,” said Dines. “Parents can’t monitor as much as they did because they’re just overwhelmed with home schooling and having kids home through the summer.”

But even in normal times, in the absence of a reliable school curriculum, pornography has become the dominant form of sex ed for a tech-savvy generation, Dines says, making test subjects of developing adolescents in an unprecedented, ongoing modern science experiment.

“They’re just beginning to really understand the power of porn on the brain now,” said Dines, who lives in Greater Boston. “It’s a relatively new field. Even the researchers are shocked by their own results.”

Dines, whom The Guardian newspaper dubbed the world’s leading anti-pornography campaigner a decade ago, has set out to counter those impacts by educating and enlisting the people best skilled at combating other youth public health crises: parents. Culture Reframed, the nonprofit she founded in 2015, has launched free online training courses to teach parents how to help their children navigate a hyper-sexualized culture and build their resistance to pornography.

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“What was obvious in this stealth public health crisis is that parents don’t know anything,” Dines said. “They don’t even know what’s out there, let alone how to help their kids.”

Peer-reviewed and developed by a team of specialists in a variety of fields — including technology, adolescent health and psychology, and sex ed — the courses help parents process the images their teenagers or tweens are likely to encounter and the available scientific research on porn’s effects on the human brain.

In some of its most disturbing and controversial segments, the course teaches that masturbating to porn desensitizes boys to violence and trains them to become aroused by increasingly shocking acts. A rising prevalence of erectile dysfunction among young men is leading scientists to believe that long-term reliance on porn for arousal can deaden a male’s responses in real life.

“They get addicted to hardcore and then don’t want regular,” said Dines. “It’s like asking a whiskey drinker to go back to beer.”

In recent years, researchers have clearly identified differences in brain activity among regular and problematic pornography users, noted Mateusz Gola, a neuroscientist who studies the brain mechanisms of motivation, reward, and conditioning at the University of California San Diego. Problem pornography users show much stronger activation of the reward center of the brain that responds to stimuli and motivates gratification.

“It’s a product of conditioning — Pavlovian conditioning,” said Gola, likening it to the cravings for alcohol or drugs among a chronic user.

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Not everyone will develop such an attachment, of course. “The metaphor with alcohol is very good,” he said. “A lot of people are exposed, a lot are using on a regular basis, but only a few percent are meeting the criteria of addiction.”

The effect that porn has on the developing brain is even more controversial — and less researched, because of the ethical problems of exposing minors to pornography. But research indicates that boys who have had continuous exposure to porn without any alternative education are more likely to have attitudes that support sexual harassment and violence against women, have decreased empathy for rape victims, pressure their partners to engage in porn-style sexual activity, and experience increased difficulty in developing intimate relationships with partners, the course states.

The earlier the exposure, the more profound the effects, in the absence of countervailing messages, the course says. A peek at porn can be both titillating and confusing for a curious adolescent.

Consider that free Internet porn is rife with images of male aggression and female degradation, often featuring rough anal sex, name-calling, hair-pulling, spanking, women being strangled during sex, and women being gagged with body parts. As a result, Dines argues that porn is altering sexual expectations, skewing gender norms, and teaching young people that women enjoy painful or degrading sex acts.

“Pornography delivers misogyny to men’s brains via the penis, which is an incredibly powerful delivery system. They masturbate to it. It gets cemented in the neurons,” Dines said.

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Her detractors suggest that she generalizes porn, overstating the prevalence of violence and failing to take note of its female-centric offerings. Dines doesn’t dispute the varieties, but points to the pervasiveness of violent imagery on the free sites that are most easily accessible online.

“If you want to find something where that’s not happening, you need a credit card and at least 15 minutes. Now, what do you think a 13-year-old with an erection is going to do?” Dines said.

The effect is not only on boys, according to Dines, the author of “Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality.” Surrounded by images focused on male pleasure and fantasy, girls have been trained not to expect sexual satisfaction and to focus their own lens, too, on the male experience.

She advocates teaching girls that they, too, deserve pleasure, and for acknowledging natural curiosity about sex among all genders.

With children’s increasing reliance on technology throughout the pandemic, Dines said, it’s more important than ever to apply filters that aim to block porn. Parents should also check the history on their children’s phones, and watch if they are being secretive about phone use, she said.

“You’ve got to be more vigilant now that life has just gone online,” said Dines.

Culture Reframed’s courses also provide scripts and suggestions to guide parents through conversations that their teens might think are mortifying.

Where to start? Dines’s first tip is to compose yourself. Don’t be angry with a child for being curious about porn. Stay calm and collect your thoughts.

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Assess the impact that encountering porn has had on them. Validate their emotions and help them make sense of their reaction.


Find the right time and place for a conversation. Car rides are ideal for avoiding eye contact.

Show empathy and validate the child’s feelings. “It can be hard to be happy with how you look, especially when you are surrounded by unrealistic media images of people.”

Empower a teen to talk about difficult topics. “You are old enough to handle mature discussions.”

Talk with a child, rather than at her. For example, instead of saying, “Anyone who sends a nude should expect consequences,” a better approach is, “I’m sure they thought the pictures were going to stay private. Unfortunately, once a picture is sent, you can’t control where it ends up.”

Listen and repeat. Summarize what you hear your child say and use open-ended questions. “That sounds like a situation that got out of control. What are some ways you could respond if someone asked you to send them a nude selfie?”

Pace yourself. It’s better to have many short conversations, conveying your values and expectations about sex to your teen, rather than a long “talk.”

Monitor cellphones. Children can be coerced into sending nude pictures.

Require devices to be charged at a charging station, outside of children’s bedrooms, and set an hour at which all family members surrender their phones.

Model behavior on consent by respecting a teenager’s own wishes. Ask your child’s permission, for instance, before posting a picture on social media.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.