utahcoalition.org
A screenshot from utahcoalition.org.

SALT LAKE CITY — When Dina Alexander first jumped into the anti-pornography movement, the Texas mother of three was motivated by fear — stay away from that website, don’t download that app, no phone until adulthood.

But in the last few years, even as the culture has degraded, she’s found herself more optimistic, buoyed by the hope that deliberate, rather than just defensive parents can raise resilient, porn-shunning, tech-savvy kids.

“Deliberate parents … know who they are,” she said. “(They) know (they’re) a parent, not (their) kid’s best friend. (They’re) willing to protect them at all costs and educate them, even if it makes them uncomfortable.”

Alexander, founder and president of Educate and Empower Kids, was one of the speakers at Saturday’s 16th annual conference of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, which emphasized a proactive approach to battling pornography, as well as building hope. The conference will be rebroadcast on the group's website.

“What can stop the continuous growth of pornography?” Pamela Atkinson, chairwoman of the group asked the more than 2,000 people gathered in the Salt Palace. “I’m looking at all of you right now, because it is all of our responsibility.”

And that responsibility extends beyond just saying, “We’re not going to look at porn,” said Alexander.

Instead, she said parents must set intentional goals that recognize the digital world of their children and acknowledge technology’s potential for incredible learning, as well as harm.

She shared the insights of Simon Sinek and his Golden Circle — a series of concentric circles with the word “why” at the center, followed by ‘how’ and then ‘what.’

Often family conversations about tech may sound something like, “Get off your phone, or else …” followed by the establishment of tech-free zones or device-free dinners — all so the family can have greater connectivity.

However, a better approach is to start with the ‘why,’” Alexander said, where parents share with their kids their goal for a closer, more connected family. From there, the family can set up device-free spaces and times, and then kids understand why phones aren’t allowed at the table or during homework.

Other conversations need to tackle pornography more directly, and parents can’t be shy about starting them, said John Fort, director of training for Be Broken Ministries, where he trains parents in pornography prevention.

“The fact is, parents, we’re more afraid to talk about this than our kids are,” he said.

He hears from parents who worry they don’t know enough, or that having struggled with pornography themselves their messages will sound hypocritical.

But Fort strongly encouraged parents to share their own stories, and emphasized that this failure is exactly what qualifies them to mentor their kids.

“We’re about to ask our kids to tell us when they see porn,” he said, “Why would they do that if we haven’t told them our experience?”

For years, Fort and his then high school-age age son conducted weekly, structured accountability chats, where they reported to each other their progress on moving away from negative behaviors, identified the underlying emotions leading to those behaviors and then set goals.

Fort’s wife and daughter did the same thing, but with an unstructured approach.

Both were designed to teach the teens to cope with negative emotions by turning to healthy relationships, rather than escaping into the fantasy worlds of pornography, sexual fantasies or even social media use.

These types of ongoing conversations are critical and must always be filled with love, Joy D. Jones, general president of the primary organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasized in her morning keynote address.

“Love is our greatest weapon in fighting against pornography,” she said. “As the popular catchphrase says, ‘porn kills love,’ let’s also remember that love kills porn.”

She recommended three phases of love when children encounter pornography.

The first is “I love you,” and it means ensuring that children are protected from and educated about pornography and healthy sexual education through ongoing, parent-led conversations.

Jones shared the Native American folk tale of the young boy who agrees to carry a rattlesnake and is eventually bitten, despite earlier promises to the contrary.

The taunting words of the snake — “You knew what I was when you picked me up” — have deeper meaning when applied to technology, she said.

“In today’s world, I see many parents handing their child a snake,” she said. “I am speaking of smartphones. We cannot put cellphones with internet access into the hands of youth children who … do not yet have necessary reasoning and decision-making abilities.”

Yet, even if families avoid smartphones or install monitoring software and regularly talk about pornography, today’s youth will still see it, and many will become entangled, Jones said.

The second phrase, “I still love you, no matter what,” assures kids that their parents, grandparents or other trusted adults won’t shame them or stop loving them if something happens, and that they shouldn’t be afraid to come forward with questions.

For years, Fort said he and his wife encouraged their kids to come forward when they saw porn, plus Fort had already shared his own battle with pornography, yet he said his son was still terrified to come tell them when he stumbled across it.

“It is so important, especially that first time, that you do not punish them, that you just love them,” Fort said. His son later confessed that had Fort yelled, he would have never talked to him again.

But parents shouldn't always wait for kids to come forward, said Jones. Parents should take advantage of times in the car, at the dinner table, at bedtime, to talk about why pornography is harmful. They can share research that shows pornography use can lead to changes in the brain, loss of self-esteem, dishonesty, strained family relationships, loss of time and energy and loneliness, among others.

Those “whys” are crucial, Jones said, because “if the only reason (to avoid pornography) is ‘it’s bad,’ ” that may end up being an inadequate reason,” she said.

And finally, kids need to hear “I will always love you,” and feel ongoing support through the healing process, Jones said, which may often require professional help.

"Love is the foundation," she said. "Love brings hope, and bringing light to the darkness is the first step."

While pornography gets a large share of attention, it’s just one issue in the broader issue of increasing media use in today’s “attention economy,” explained Chris Carlston, a corporate digital strategist offering the self-proclaimed “nerd perspective” on the issue of mobile use as a gateway to addiction.

As more of the globe becomes connected via mobile phones, people can work faster, and smarter, yet they're also being trained to respond to alerts, notifications and dings like Pavlovian dogs.

“We’re talking about our autonomy, fundamentally, who is controlling our thoughts,” Carlston said. “It’s very core, very important to our internal self. What are we giving away, who are we empowering externally to cue us and make us think? To make us react?”

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To counteract feelings of distractedness, disembodiment and disconnectedness Carlston recommends focusing on mindfulness, truthfulness and empathy, in addition to setting schedules and priorities — the “whys” of social media and phone use. He also practices a weekly digital fast, where he doesn’t carry a phone.

“Your phone … can remind you to be mindful,” he said with a laugh. “If we can be mature and hold this paradox in our heart and understand that this access can also make us grow — we just gotta find the right balance and … be diligent about what we allow on our phone.”