This week, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Dr. Michelle Cretella, president of the American College of Pediatricians (ACPEDs), about how pornography harms children, and steps parents can take to protect their children from sexually explicit material online.
INTRODUCTION: Michelle Cretella, M.D., is President of the American College of Pediatricians, which is a national organization of pro-life pediatricians and other healthcare professionals dedicated to the health and well-being of children. She is a board certified general pediatrician with a focus on adolescent health.
Dr. Cretella is with us to discuss a recent policy statement from the American College of Pediatricians that highlights the harms of pornography for children.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Cretella, pornography has become widespread throughout our society due to sexually explicit material on the Internet. We know there is a substantial risk that young people will be exposed to pornography online at some point, either by accident, intentionally or because someone in their vicinity may be viewing it as well. From your experience, how great is this risk, and at what age are we seeing boys and girls exposed to pornography?
MICHELLE CRETELLA: Usually, in a situation like this, I encourage parents to just assume the worst. We have such a proliferation of social media and cell phones, even smart phones—I’m seeing younger and younger kids even in grade school having smart phones with access to the Internet. The chances of accidentally coming across porn at some point is probably close to 100 percent for most kids. I can tell you that five years ago there was one study that found 30 percent of freshmen and sophomore high school students reported that they first were exposed to porn at age 10. And I’ve practiced [pediatrics] in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and it is often the case that kids as young as nine or 10 [are] being accidentally exposed to porn when they’re just looking at maybe an older sibling’s Facebook page, or email accounts get spammed, and they just don’t realize what could potentially be there. I think it’s also concerning because, again going back five years, the pornography has been so pervasive that one study found 70 percent of teen boys and 50 percent of teen girls thought porn was acceptable. And I would say as a pediatrician, having the cell phones and the phenomenon of sexting, or sharing explicit pictures between boyfriend and girlfriend, I think that also plays into the acceptance of perhaps harder porn.
JOHN RUSTIN: It makes me think back to not long ago when we were warning parents about having good filtering software on their computers at home, and of course at work, public schools and libraries. But now, children are carrying access to the Internet around with them all day long with their cell phones and potentially other devices. That transformation has really taken place in a very short period of time. And I would venture to say has probably either caught a lot of parents off-guard, or has simply sort of flown under the radar screen where that immediate, constant access is available to any child that has a cell phone, practically 24 hours a day. And the need for parents to be aware, to be in tune with what their children are viewing, both on computer and on other devices, is so critically important.
MICHELLE CRETELLA: Absolutely. I think you’re right. In the old days, you had to go to a XXX bookstore or wherever [for porn], but now it’s just a click away. But I think the best thing parents can do is not only have the filtering system, for sure have them, but also talk with your kids about that. Some parents may be integrate the filters or spy on their kids cellphone use without telling the kids, but in fact it’s better to take the opposite approach, and just to be upfront with your kids before even think about giving them a cellphone. I have four children, and we were upfront with them about why they would not own a cellphone before 9th grade—their 8th grade graduation gift would be a cell phone—and even at that it would not have Internet access. But they understood why we were doing it, and they also had to deal with being different from a lot of their peers in that regard, but because we were always very open, they accepted that.
JOHN RUSTIN: Right, and that’s so important. I have two children in public high school now, and there’s almost an expectation by several of their teachers that the students will have devices that have Internet access that they can use for research during class throughout the school day, at library, and at home…. Talk a little bit about how exposure, and even consistent exposure to pornography, really can distort a young man’s view of women, and a woman’s view of her own self-worth.
MICHELLE CRETELLA: Whether I’m speaking with Christian or with secular parents, my message is always the same: that our sexuality is a gift. But in particular when I am speaking with families who are believers, I encourage the parents to teach their children that sexuality is a gift from God that we reserve—it’s the gift of ourselves—that we reserve for our husband or wife. Now that’s beautiful, sex is beautiful, our whole sexuality, our whole person, is a beautiful gift. That’s in contrast to what what the kids will absorb if they’re watching porn. In porn, it’s not about gifting, it’s about taking and sexual pleasure for usually one person, so it’s just reducing sexuality to just the physical pleasure of one person at the expense of another. And usually, the woman in particular is just viewed as a thing, she’s just a sex toy, and we know through studying men in particular who are hooked on porn, they have a much more callous view toward women, and they are much more accepting of the idea of abusing women, even rape. Now, from the girl’s perspective, porn’s going to totally reduce her self-worth to just whatever’s skin-deep, and the concept that she’s only important or valuable if she is sexually appealing to a man, and that she exists just to please a man, even to the degree of being emotionally or verbally abused, or even physically and sexually abused. I mean these are horrible messages that are just woven into her psyche as she becomes repeatedly exposed to these images.
JOHN RUSTIN: And I know that the younger a child begins either being exposed to or practicing those behaviors, the more likely they are to continue that and to kind of dive deeper and deeper—whether it’s drugs, alcohol and viewing pornography. Do you, as a pediatrician, consider pornography to be similar to a drug or alcohol addiction, or some other form of addiction?
MICHELLE CRETELLA: Yes, the more scientists and researchers study brain chemistry and brain activity, we’re finding that porn triggers the same addiction hormone, if you will, in the brain, the same one that is triggered by drugs and alcohol. And this is especially harmful to kids because their brains are not fully mature, and so it’s for that reason that the younger a child is when they first start smoking, drinking, using drugs, or viewing porn, that addiction can be more quickly acquired, and more difficult to overcome, yes.
JOHN RUSTIN: Based on this awareness, the American College of Pediatricians is urging pediatricians across the country to discuss the harms of pornography with young patients and their parents. As a pediatrician yourself, how do you handle discussing this topic with parents of adolescents your patients, [who are] adolescents themselves, in a way that is both age-appropriate, respectful of parental rights, and effective in getting this message out there, so that parents and children are away of the harms of this?
MICHELLE CRETELLA: I’m going to answer that at sort of three different stages of child development. So, when I have let’s say the two to three year-old year-old visit, at those visits young children are discovering their private parts, and have already had conversations with their parents to some degree or another. And I encourage parents that if their children bring questions up about their private parts, or you’re talking typically about modesty, and bathing suite parts and so forth, to teach children that these are private parts that you share just with mommy and daddy or the doctor—not for shaming reasons, but because they are beautiful and precious and are gifts from God, for example, so starting that way. As they’re a little bit older and they’re going to be exposed maybe using computers not under your supervision, or playing games on phones with Internet access, I encourage parents let their children know, “Sweetie, sometimes pictures might come up that are surprise you or make you feel yucky or confused or maybe even guilty. If you ever see something that bothers you, that makes you feel yucky, please tell me, and I will help you.” That way you’re not, you’re not being explicit, but you’re honing in on anything that they might see or read that bothers them. You want to know about it as a parent, so to couch it in those terms, because that’s going be helpful for the child, and they’re going to come to you versus someone else. And then when I am dealing with, the middle school age, where particularly we can have a conversation about sometimes middle schoolers send inappropriate pictures across their cellphones, and that can kind of lead into a discussion that way, but it’s done with the parent in the room. And so that’s generally how I would probably go about it. And by high school, you can be again a little more explicit, talking about how pornography is pretty prevalent among high schoolers, and you can kind of tailor it to both the parent and the teenagers. As pediatricians, we typically have known them for years, so at that point you can be very respectful, and it’s the type of topic that I would always introduce with the parent present, and particularly if I’ve know them over the years, it becomes easier to have this conversation. If parents want more detailed examples of how to answer children’s questions about sexuality in general, one book that I do encourage parents to look up and purchase is called Questions Kids Ask About Sex, and it’s sold and published by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well great, and thank you for that recommendation. And before we have to leave—we’re just about out of time for this week—Dr. Cretella, I wanted to let you have an opportunity to tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about the American College of Pediatricians, and also find out more about the policy statement entitled, “The Impact of Pornography on Children.”
MICHELLE CRETELLA: Yes, absolutely, we want to encourage all your listeners to learn more about the American College of Pediatricians. You can find us at www.acpeds.org.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, Dr. Michelle Cretella, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of what we know is a very busy schedule to be with us today on Family Policy Matters, and for the great work that you do at the American College of Pediatricians.
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