For the past two decades, I have been speaking, teaching, writing, and counseling students on a variety of issues. Yet in the past few years, no issue has become more critical to address with students than pornography. And yet, sadly, many parents, youth workers, teachers, and other adults simply ignore it.

Sociologist Mark Regnerus said it best, “Conversations about sex can be uncomfortable for both parent and child, but not having them—or handling them poorly—can cause long-term damage.”[i] This article is not technically about having “the talk,” but about understanding the root issues that make students vulnerable to the lure of pornography. In my next post, I will offer six practical steps for talking with students about porn.

The Root Issue

According to the recent Porn Phenomenon study conducted by Barna and the Josh McDowell Ministry, the top three reasons teenagers (ages 13-17) say they use porn is: personal arousal (67%), boredom (45%), and curiosity (41%). But what is inevitably left out of these kinds of analyses are the deeper, unrecognizable reasons kids view pornography. I think of heavy porn use (like any addiction) as the branches on a tree. In other words, porn use is a symptom of a much deeper issue that lies at the root. What is that issue?

As beings made in the image of God, we are meant to be in healthy relationships with God and other people (Gen 1-2). If those relational needs are not met by our family, friends, and God, then a relational counterfeit will step in and take its place. These counterfeits include: drugs, alcohol, sex, eating disorders, overworking, success, materialism and, of course, pornography. If we are raising a generation of people whose common denominator is really loneliness and relational disconnecction, their relational hole must be filled with something and pornography is arguably the most powerful and accessible counterfeit.

Psychiatrist Paul Warren once said, “An addiction is something that is used to fill the void that a relationship is meant to fill.”[ii] One of the reasons pornography has such a stronghold over many in this generation is because few young people today feel truly known and loved.

Sherry Turkle illustrates and discusses this in her insightful book Alone Together. She argues that Americans have become increasingly isolated and alone. As a result, she concludes, “Kids are more and more connected, but less and less really connected.”[iii]Remarkably, a new app has emerged called Ameego, in which people can pay a fee to “rent” companionship for a short time. While the issue of technology and relationships is certainly complex, the 26-year-old creator of the app, Clay Kohut, said, “…in general, people do report having fewer closer friends and confidants than they may have had previously.” Kohut believes he is fighting “tech-induced isolation.”

If we want to really help kids today, we must address the deeper relational needs that often drive porn use and addiction in the first place.

The False Allure of Pornography

Some of the attraction for pornography is that it claims to meet our deeper needs for acceptance, while avoiding the potential of being hurt. Porn offers sex without risk and vulnerability. As far as boys are concerned, porn puts the male user in control, which is intensely alluring, especially when real-world relationships can be painful and unpredictable for teens. In her book Pornified, Pamela Paul illustrates some of the underlying motivations that drive many young men to pornography:

“In the porn fantasy, a guy is no longer that tech geek that nobody liked in junior high school or the awkward college student lacking in social skills. In his mind’s eye—despite a paucity of dates and a sexual history confined to the girl from math class—he has always gotten the woman he wants.”[iv]

Again, if we really want to help students conquer porn addiction and develop healthy relationships, we need to address the deeper root issues. If we simply provide accountability and tech software to prevent porn usage (which are both critical, by the way), then we are merely putting a bandaid on a wound that won’t self-heal.

Stay tuned for Part 2 when we will discuss six practical steps for helping students overcome the lies of our pornified culture.

You can find the original version of this article on Sean McDowell's blog.

[i] Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit (New York: Oxford, 2007), 62.

[ii] The Medical Institute National conference, 2002.

[iii] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011), 154

[iv] Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New York: Owl Books, 2005), 44.