In the great battle for the city of Cumeni, Helaman tells of his 2,060 stripling warriors who “fought most desperately” against their enemies (Alma 57:19). While “there was not one soul of them who did perish” in that battle, “neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds” (Alma 57:25). Many of these teenage soldiers were so terribly wounded that they fainted from the loss of blood.
These young warriors fought a battle that their parents could not fight for them, and they fought it because their society had been attacked. A similarly disastrous war rages among modern teenagers, for similar reasons. Today’s parents can no more fight the spiritual battles for their youth than the people of Ammon could. But they can learn to recognize the spiritual wounds this war inflicts and arm their children with the knowledge and resources they will need to survive.
Some studies show that close to one hundred percent of today’s teenagers will be exposed to pornography by the time they graduate from high school, and most of those exposures occur on the Internet while the child is doing homework.1 As of 2008, an estimated 9 out of 10 young men and nearly one-third of young women reported using pornography.2 The average age of exposure and addiction are the same: 11 years old. We hope that these numbers drop with the influence of the gospel, but research shows that Latter-day Saints “are no different when it comes to prevalence or magnitude of sexual addictions.”3 Unfortunately, the question seems to be no longer if our children will be exposed to pornography but when—and how they will cope. Indeed, we can expect many of our youth to be wounded in this battle. But that doesn’t mean they will perish.
In an effort to protect their children, parents can get bogged down with the do’s and don’ts of Internet safety. Mark Butler, professor of family life at Brigham Young University, acknowledges the importance of safeguarding our homes and families while adding that these “technological solutions are only the beginning of the answer. The most important shield is the one we place over our hearts, and this spiritual shield is formed and fitted in the home.”4 While Internet blocks and family computer rules are critical and helpful, pornography addictions often develop outside the home at public libraries, friends’ homes, or WiFi hotspots, where the Internet may not have as many obstacles.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught: “Reactions have focused on enacting more and stronger regulation. Perhaps that may dissuade some from unprincipled conduct, but others will simply get more creative in their circumvention. There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation. … In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay.”5 In the end, the best defense you can instill in your youth is the desire for a virtuous life.
We will never be able to misuse our physical body without also injuring our spirit, and that kind of injury always leaves spiritual scars.
Observant parents may be able to detect pornography addiction by watching for the following signs. A word of caution: these signs do not necessarily indicate a pornography addiction. If your teenager shows some of these behaviors, they indicate a deeper problem that could include substance abuse, pornography addiction, bullying, or something else. Regardless of the cause, you can use these signs to cue you in to initiate loving, interventional dialogue with your children.
Youth who struggle with pornography often experience debilitating shame that erodes their self-esteem. Some of the signs for loss in self-esteem include performing poorly in school, losing motivation for activities, and showing lack of discipline in good health practices or sleeping patterns.
Addictions to pornography thrive in secret, and you may see your teenager withdrawing more from family time and social activities. This is the most common indicator of a problem with pornography. Teenagers who spend an inordinate amount of time in their room with the door locked and who isolate themselves from others may not just be shy. Even when they are included in social situations, these teenagers often have difficulty interacting with others. Isolation becomes more pronounced as the addiction deepens, and teenagers often display anger when their personal space is invaded. Those who struggle with pornography develop distorted views of their own worth and of others’ virtue, and they pull away from the people they imagine to be more virtuous because they feel unworthy, ashamed, and hypocritical.
Depression is a double-edged blade because it can serve as both a symptom of and a trigger for an addiction. Continual expressions of hopelessness, insistent negativity, and admissions of helplessness can all be signs of depression. Teenagers who joke about suicide manifest depression. Other signs of depression include eating more or less than normal, sleeplessness or oversleeping, and physical exhaustion—basically anything that could be considered extreme behaviors.
Other signs of involvement with pornography include increased anger, dishonesty, pride, and discomfort or boredom in spiritual settings.
We cannot list all the signs of pornography addiction. Parents can best gauge whether or not their teens are adequately armored against pornography when they keep an open dialogue with them about sexuality and their emotional and spiritual health.
At their root, “all addictions are maladaptive coping strategies,” says Professor Butler. Children who have not learned how to deal with guilt, shame, sorrow, or pain will often turn to addictive behaviors to numb their negative emotions. Even less serious emotions such as stress, boredom, or loneliness can lead to addictive behaviors if the child doesn’t understand how to cope.
Parents can help their children develop healthy coping strategies by modeling that behavior themselves. The following questions may help you evaluate your own coping strategies: When you are stressed, tired, or in despair, do you isolate yourself? Do you rely on entertainment to escape your problems instead of addressing them? Do you demonstrate that the healthiest way to solve problems is to rely on Heavenly Father, the Savior, and your relationships with others?
Children must learn to recognize the signs of spiritual wounds such as grief, guilt, and pain so they can turn their pain into learning experiences. Emotional pain is not bad. Alma the younger describes the pains of his sins as “exquisite” and “bitter” (Alma 36:21); Peter “wept bitterly” after he denied the Savior (Luke 22:62); and Zeezrom was tormented “on account of his wickedness” (Alma 15:3). You can help your children learn to relate to pain not as a horrible emotion to be avoided but as a teacher that can lead to incredible growth. Alma, Peter, and Zeezrom all used the pains of their sins to spur them to repentance, and they became devoted ambassadors of the gospel. Your example and guidance can help your children learn to value repentance over addiction.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, taught: “There is an important difference between the sorrow for sin that leads to repentance and the sorrow that leads to despair.
“The Apostle Paul taught that ‘godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation … but the sorrow of the world worketh death’ [2 Corinthians 7:10; emphasis added]. Godly sorrow inspires change and hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Worldly sorrow pulls us down, extinguishes hope, and persuades us to give in to further temptation. …
“True repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment. Yes, heartfelt regret and true remorse for disobedience are often painful and very important steps in the sacred process of repentance. But when guilt leads to self-loathing or prevents us from rising up again, it is impeding rather than promoting our repentance.”7
Your children will be able to persevere through their spiritual wounds when they have the vision of and hope for a virtuous life. This vision is built through fervent prayer and sincere scripture study on a daily basis.8 Professor Butler advises parents: “By the power of your examples, create a compelling vision of the joy, peace, and happiness of a virtuous life. There is a long journey between the desire for a virtuous life and its achievement, but desire is the germinal seed.” It may take a while for the desire for virtue to grow. “The natural man is a highly durable creature and often takes a long time to evict,” Professor Butler says. And while the word addiction does not remove responsibility for choices, it does mean that more malignant habits often need patient and persistent intervention (such as the Church’s addiction recovery program) in order to overcome.
Like Helaman’s warriors, our youth often demonstrate “great courage” when confronted with evil (Alma 56:45). Just as those Book of Mormon warriors relied on their parents’ faith, we must also communicate our testimonies of and devotion to the gospel so that our youth can say, “We do not doubt our mothers [and fathers] knew it” (Alma 56:48). The Lord has promised, “I will fight your battles” (D&C 105:14). As our youth exercise faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, they will become “mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20).