Giving teens a safe space to talk about web porn

It’s no secret that young people are increasingly turning to internet porn to satisfy their curiosity about sex.

Yet most parents and teachers are scared to talk about what’s seen as a taboo or difficult subject.

Mary Sharpe, a lawyer from Edinburgh, is on the case.

In 2014, Mary set up Scottish charity the Reward Foundation to give young people, parents and professionals easy-to-access information about sex and the harmful effects of internet porn, from depression to impotence.

The charity has already delivered porn awareness talks to hundreds in high schools and plans to move into primary schools to work with pupils from age 10.

A recent study showed 10% of 12 to 13-year-old children in Scotland are worried that they are addicted to pornography online.Mary, CEO of the foundation said, “It’s a massive problem yet most young people are not aware of the risks. Teens are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity so they are especially vulnerable to addiction. We give them a safe space to talk about porn.”

Through workshops and guides on their website, the charity also gives advice on health and relationships as well as practical guides to the laws around consent, sexting, revenge porn and webcam sex.

Their free resources include stress reduction guides, a three-step plan to help young people quit porn and a 24-hour screen-fast programme.

In early 2017, the foundation secured funding to develop a website with young people as well as books for boys and girls on sex and relationships.

Before setting up the Edinburgh-based charity Mary, 57, was a solicitor and advocate in Scotland. After post graduate work with the University of Cambridge, she worked with Nato on research into suicide bombers.

She was drawn into research on porn addiction after working with Gary Wilson of the viral TEDx talk The Great Porn Experiment.

“As a lawyer, I saw how addictions ruined families. Internet porn is ruining the lives of young people and their relationships. We need to act now.”

The Reward Foundation doesn’t campaign against porn, she stresses. “We want to educate young people and professionals and to promote recovery; it’s about building resilience and helping young people feel in control.”

Is watching porn online today so different to previous generations who stashed well-thumbed copies of Playboy under the bed?

Mary thinks it is. Last year, the foundation published a paper with US Navy doctors that proposed internet porn use could create sexual difficulties even in healthy viewers.

Too much solo screen time can have devastating effects on physical and mental health. For many, says Mary, it becomes compulsive and can spiral out of control.

“With constant novelty just one click away, obsessively looking for that next dopamine hit can lead to addiction for some. Ever more extreme images are needed to get aroused. After binging on porn, real life partners don’t cut it. It creates changes in the brain.”

Mary is in no doubt that internet porn addiction is in part fuelling the rise in sexual assaults, revenge porn and child on child sex abuse.

“The risk of escalation is the biggest danger. Once addicted, more extreme material is needed to get the same hit from rape to torture porn, gang bangs or child porn.”

A distorted view of sex goes to the heart of the problem, says Mary. “Abuse and violence are confused as sex. Porn influences the perceptions of what is appropriate or ‘normal’ sexual behaviour. We focus on what respect looks like and why it’s important in relationships.”

Sex crime is at a historic high in Scotland, accounting for 80% of the case load in the High Court. There is significant evidence of sexual and other violence becoming more prevalent in young people’s relationships.

Studies also suggest around 12% of young people have taken part in or shot a sexually explicit video. “We hear from girls that feel coerced into acting out behaviour they see in porn and sharing explicit images of themselves. The images are shared online and it has a domino effect.”

Young people calling helplines or posting on forums report symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to thoughts of suicide.

So what else can be done to tackle what the foundation and other leading charities are calling a major public health issue?

In a bid to restrict illegal access to porn, the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 will require users to provide ID.

“The new bill could introduce a requirement to verify legal age of 18 but in the face of a massive industry we have to be realistic about what limits to access can do. Instead, we focus on reducing the demand through education,” says Mary.

Getting the subject into sex education is not straightforward. In a recent survey, the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association said teachers fear “mishandling” the situation.

Mary says: “Officials are nervous about upsetting faith based voters or sexual minorities. It’s on the backs of teachers, in a curriculum ill-equipped to deal with it and already overloaded. Schools desperately need more training and investment.”

She believes robust evidence is the only approach. “We base the education on science. There’s growing research into how porn addiction affects the brain and reward circuit.

“We make it practical. We look at how real sex is different to porn. That can help prevent addiction and promote recovery. It takes longer – but young people brains can recover.”

After delivering talks in private schools in Edinburgh and Stirling last year, the charity plans to do sessions with schools in deprived areas of Edinburgh in 2017 and has started developing lesson plans that could be rolled out as part of the curriculum.

Developing education for parents is the next step. Mary says: “Parents are scared to go there. Some refuse to talk about it. We want to encourage them to supervise access, put boundaries in place and to talk openly. We are facing this huge societal change. It’s going to take more than a couple of filters to tackle that.”

For more information on the Reward Foundation, go here

Thanks to Positively Scottish for publishing the article!

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