Headlines have been buzzing for the past several weeks with the findings of Common Sense Media’s recent study of teenagers and pornography. The survey included more than 1,300 teenagers between the ages of 13 to 17 (with their parents’ consent). Its chief finding confirmed what many youth ministers have long observed: that kids are being exposed to pornography earlier than ever, in many cases well before their teenage years.
As ministers of the gospel, we rightly feel troubled that the teenagers we serve are finding their way to porn at younger ages than our parents and grandparents ever could have dreamed. With the advent of the iPhone and similar devices, and our increasingly “always-on-everywhere” lifestyles, as Andy Crouch has put it, there can be no mistake the kids we love and serve are at risk.
Here’s what every youth minister needs to know about this latest research, and what we can do about it.
Teenagers are being exposed to pornography earlier
Common Sense Media’s data indicated that 54% of teenagers had seen pornography by the time they were 13, with 10% reporting being exposed to porn before the age of 11. The study indicates that on average, kids in the survey reported first seeing porn at the age of 12.
Whereas in generations past, pornography often came in the form of naked images on a printed page (which was harmful enough), the content today’s kids are consuming represents something far more visually damaging: most often graphic video content depicting actual sex acts.
Children and teenagers desperately need someone to talk with them about how harmful pornography truly is, both on God’s image-bearers whom porn objectifies, and on the minds and hearts of those who view it. Sadly, only 43% of teenagers surveyed said that a trusted adult had ever talked with them about pornography. Kids need to know how to respond before they are unintentionally exposed.
What you can do: Provide parents with needed resources
Research continues to show that parents are the leading influence in the lives of teenagers, and particularly when it comes to their spiritual lives. With many kids viewing porn before they start middle school, one of the best things youth ministers can do is to reach out to parents, even ahead of their children’s participation in youth ministry.
The parents in your church are likely worried about the possibility of their kids being exposed to—or seeking out—pornography. Still, they may not feel equipped to handle the hard conversations and protective measures needed to help steer their kids away from harmful content.
Consider hosting a parent meeting or Sunday school class that includes younger families alongside youth group parents. Present the latest research and share some resources parents can lean on as they engage their kids in important conversations. The newest course in Rooted’s Family Discipleship Curriculum, “Talking to Our Children About Sex,” provides nine classes parents can work through together in a small group or adult education setting. You might even offer an opportunity for parents to role play in smaller groups as they prepare to facilitate conversation with kids of different ages. Facilitate time to pray together so parents know they are not alone in this journey.
One Christian sex educator I know is fond of urging parents to talk with kids about sex “early and often.” In the information age this is especially sound wisdom in regard to pornography. By coming alongside the parents in your church as an ally, you not only encourage them to open the lines of communication in their homes; you’ll also pave the way for them to lean on the local church for support.
Teenagers are curious about sex
A staggering 45% of teenagers surveyed said that pornography helps them learn about sex—even though only 27% of all surveyed agreed that pornography offers a realistic vision of the way most people actually have sex. Meanwhile 52% of the teenagers in the study indicated having seen violence in pornography.
Psychologists often point out that teenagers’ curiosity about sex is a normative part of development. Still, the stakes seem higher in our modern age with so much graphic, even violent, content available with only a few clicks on a teenager’s personal device. Considering fewer than half of teenagers in the study reported having conversations about pornography with the trusted adults in their lives (43%), there is clearly an information gap in learning a biblical view of sex and sexuality.
What you can do: Teach the Bible’s sexual ethic
While most youth ministers probably dread the annual teaching series many of us do on biblical sexuality, this data should encourage us that it’s vitally important. Teenagers need to know that God designed sex for our good within the context of biblical marriage, so that sex that includes violence or harm clearly violates God’s commands.
Teenagers also need to know that sex is not the ultimate goal of human existence—the apostle Paul was single and celibate, and even our Lord Jesus remained celibate throughout his earthly ministry. By regularly teaching God’s very-good-but-not-ultimate design for sex (in partnership with teenagers’ parents), we let them know we have good information to share; they do not need to look to pornography for answers to their big questions.
Teenagers are using pornography intentionally at alarming rates
Be aware that many—if not most (73% in the Common Sense Media survey)—teenagers in your youth group have likely seen pornography, either accidentally or on purpose. The research suggests that even unintentional exposure at young ages puts kids at risk for intentional, perhaps compulsive use. While both girls and boys are affected, boys seem to be especially vulnerable, with 52% of boys in the survey reporting having watched pornography on purpose (compared to 36% of girls). A total of 44% of all teenagers surveyed indicated having watched pornography intentionally.
The numbers in the Common Sense Media study demonstrate a significant number of teenagers who are consuming pornography on a monthly or weekly basis (59% of those who watched intentionally said they do so at least once per week). While assessing addiction requires clinical diagnosis from a trained counselor, a 2014 study at the University of Cambridge showed that young men with compulsive pornography habits exhibited a brain response to graphic images that closely mimics drug addiction. The teenagers in our care need us to recognize and respond to this issue.
What you can do: Talk about pornography at youth group
Consider that even middle schoolers may already be battling with damaging images emblazoned on their minds from intentional or unintentional pornography consumption—and the likelihood increases for high schoolers.
Statistics show the teenagers of iGen are more likely to struggle with regular porn use than with having sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend. With this development in mind, we can probably be bolder than we might think in taking about pornography at youth group, including the reality of this temptation and struggle as an illustration for the kinds of sin from which Jesus rescues us.
Of course we don’t want to drag anyone’s mind through the gutter, so consider using more nuanced language (i.e. “bad pictures,” or “looking at things you know you shouldn’t”) when speaking with a middle school audience. Any middle schooler who has stumbled across sexual images or video content likely will know what you mean.
By gently broaching the subject without shame, you establish yourself as someone students could come and talk with if they’ve seen something inappropriate or if they’re struggling. Consider making such an invitation directly, offering help for those who need it.
Our teenagers need us to regularly remind them that just as there is nothing they could do to earn their right standing with God through the work of Jesus Christ, there is nothing they can do to lose it. The Good News for the teenager struggling with pornography use is that Jesus lived the perfect life that he could never hope to live, died in his place for every wrong thing he has done, and rose again to give him a brand new life with God.
Remind students that God is doing a work in each of us to sanctify us from the “sin that so easily entangles,” and that in the meantime, he has fully removed the sin and shame of all who trust in him.
As we serve this hyper-connected and porn-exposed generation, may God give us wisdom to see their struggles and to respond with the grace of the gospel.
 Christian Smith, “Keeping the Faith,” First Things, May 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2021/05/keeping-the-faith.
 “Family Discipleship Curriculum,” Rooted Reservoir, https://rootedministry.com/family-ministry-curriculum/.
Kristen A. Jensen, Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids 2nd Ed. (Glen Cove Press, LLC, 2018). (Please note: these resources originated from a Mormon background; a number of Christian sex educators have found that they resonate with a Christian worldview on pornography.)
Kristen A. Jensen, Good Pictures, Bad Pictures Jr.: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds (Glen Cove Press, 2017).
Birds and Bees Podcast, “Episode 007 – Protecting Our Kids from Pornography (featuring: Kristen Jenson, author of Good Pictures, Bad Pictures)” https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-007-protecting-our-kids-from-pornography-featuring/id1553412228?i=1000542361862
 Frederica Jones, Talk: Teaching Adults To Lead Their Kids: Talking to Your Children about Sex and Other Things(Admond Publishing, 2013).
 Valerie Voon, Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours, https://web.archive.org/web/20201213030023/https:/journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0102419
 Meg Watson, “‘Quality over quantity’: Gen Z’s ‘sex recession’ looks more like an upturn,” The Guardian, Feb. 2, 2020, https://amp.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/feb/03/quality-over-quantity-gen-zs-sex-recession-looks-more-like-an-upturn