SALT LAKE CITY — Teens may not say it directly, but they wish their parents would talk to them about pornography.
"This is not a one-time conversation," Clay Olsen, executive director of Fight the New Drug, told attendees of the 12th annual Utah Coalition Against Pornography conference Saturday. "This is an ongoing, layered conversation that starts young and goes on into their adulthood.
"Buckle up. We have to talk about this."
Olsen was one of seven presenters who spoke to the sold-out crowd of nearly 1,100 about the problems of pornography and its effects on the brain, relationships and society and how to fight against it.
Enlightened by feedback from more than 200 presentations to school-aged kids, Olsen shared three things teens have said they wished their parents knew. First, teens want parents to know more about the actual harms of pornography.
In his keynote address, neurosurgeon Donald Hilton addressed some of the neurological changes that occur after consuming pornography, which mimics some damage experienced by drug users.
"Addiction is diseased, disordered learning," Hilton said. "It writes a powerful software into the brain's logic and memory centers, and with time, the software actually changes the hardware on the computer that is our brain."
As the brain's reward pathway is changed and shaped by drugs, alcohol or pornography, the "pleasure thermostat" is altered, Hilton said, leading the individual wanting harder hits to feel the same sense of pleasure.
So when parents tell their kids to "just stop it," not only are they diminishing the societal struggle facing that child, they're also glossing over the underlying biological reasons that make stopping difficult without intervention, say both Hilton and Olsen.
Parents should also know that pornography is dramatically different today than it was 10 or 15 years ago, Olsen said, not just in its increasingly violent nature, but in where and how it can be accessed.
With Internet-enabled devices in nearly every pocket, it's crucial that parents take a proactive role in safeguarding their homes.
"We think a lot of times, with the Internet ... (our kids) are safe upstairs within their room; that's really not the case with technology anymore," said Clayton Ostler, senior director of technology for ContentWatch, the company that makes Net Nanny, a parental control software.
"Create a family plan, things like ... Internet usage, time online, what your kinds can ... can't access. The sooner you have a plan in place, the easier your life will be," he said.
Ostler encouraged parents to begin by installing contextual-based filters, which work better than list-based filters for an ever-changing Internet, but added that no filter is perfect and ongoing parental engagement is crucial.
For safer web searching, visit google.com/preferences and the page will come up with a SafeSearch Filters option. Click on the box to "filter explicit results," and then lock it, which will help cut down on inappropriate images coming up in searches.
In YouTube, parents can log in to their YouTube profile and under YouTube settings, scroll to the bottom of the page looking for a box that says "Safety" and turn it on. For those with iPhones, iPods, iPads, anything with the IOS7, click on Settings, then General, then Restrictions, then click Enable and put in a passcode. Parents then have options to block apps, TV shows and limit things based on ratings. They can also click on "websites" and choose to limit adult content.
These options won't be 100 percent effective, Ostler said, but because they are easy and free, there's no reason they shouldn't be on.
The third thing teens want parents to know is that they, parents, are part of the solution. Parents should educate themselves, know what their teens are doing and set rules together as a family. What Internet-enabled devices are teens using? What social media or streaming services are they using? Who are they following, friending or texting?
These conversations should happen frequently and earlier than parents think, Olsen said, adding that they've received e-mails from kids as young as 8 who say they're struggling with pornography.
However, such conversations should always begin by addressing and defining healthy sexuality before introducing the concept of pornography, Olsen said.
"One of the best things you can do as a parent is help your child decipher between healthy sexuality and its counterfeit," he said. "Today in our culture it's all in one sloppy bucket ... and it's hard to decipher between what's healthy and what's not. You are the source (to) help them delineate."
Do that by dealing with situations as they arise, like discussing a risqué billboard or commercial. "Don't go, 'Uhhhh,' and pretend (you) didn't see it ... and move on,' " Olsen said. "(Instead), use it. Say, 'Hey, look at that, what do you think? How is that portraying women? How do you feel when you see that?'"
And if teens open up and admit there's a problem, don't shun them, guilt them or shame them, Olsen said, just love them and work through it together.
After all, love is the opposite of pornography.
In the closing keynote, Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, explained that pornography is such a problem because it destroys love by turning sex into a product and bodies into a commodity. She closed with a quote by the English philosopher Roger Scruton:
"Pornography threatens the loss of love in a world where only love brings happiness."
For more information and videos of the UCAP presentations visit the UCAP website at utahcoalition.org.