Pornography is a problem affecting "our boys and our girls and we're not talking about it enough," said Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president during the Utah Coalition Against Pornography conference held in Salt Lake City on March 10.
"I am concerned that many parents may not yet realize how dangerous pornography really is or may think it's only a problem for the boy next door," she said. The reality is, Sister Jones said, the problem is affecting everyone.
In addition to her role as a Church leader to more than a million children around the world, Sister Jones feels a personal responsibility to bring to light the darkness of pornography and to provide strength to those struggling with its impact.
"I am here today as a concerned woman, mother and grandmother," she said. "We know that we can't close our eyes to the problems of pornography."
Recognizing that she has dear friends who have "fallen prey to this plague," Sister Jones has seen, like so many in the Church today, the devastating effects on individuals, couples and families.
"I have seen pornography — an epidemic of epic proportions — cause shame, distorted feelings, deceit, loss of self-control, overwhelming addiction, and total consumption of time, thought and energy," she said. "While pornography is veiled in secrecy, I have seen many avoid any form of communication while constantly fearing that they may be discovered."
With her special interest in the spiritual welfare of children as Primary general president, Sister Jones said she is "painfully aware" of the influence of pornography on children.
"My remarks today will target the need for parents, families, teachers, leaders — all of us — to really see, value and protect our children and youth," she said.
How does a person take on such a task?
"Love, I believe, is also our greatest weapon in fighting against pornography," she said.
Recognizing that love for another person alone doesn't change addiction or behavior, Sister Jones said love is a powerful motivator.
"Love can motivate us — how we prepare, how we respond, how we listen — particularly with our children," she said. "If we are going to have any hope of eradicating this plague from the world, love must be both at the forefront and the foundation of all our efforts."
Focusing her remarks on the role of a parent or teacher, Sister Jones shared three applications — protection, response and healing — to focus on, embrace and enact.
1. Protection — I love you.
An important part of protection comes through strong relationships.
"As we build relationships of trust and protect our children and grandchildren — or any child — we can give them a safe place to turn," she said. "This protection helps them understand who they are and helps them comprehend their relationship with God."
Feeling valued and loved helps children envision and rely upon a caring Heavenly Father who gives instructions for their happiness, she said.
To illustrate her point, Sister Jones shared a Native American tale of an old rattlesnake who asks a passing young boy to carry him and promises not to bite the child. But the snake does not keep his word and bites the boy. "Mr. Snake, why did you do that? Now I will surely die," said the boy. "You knew what I was when you picked me up," replied the snake.
"In today's world, I see many parents handing their child a snake," Sister Jones said. "I am speaking of smartphones. Even in impoverished countries, I have witnessed children using smartphones. The trend seems to be the same wherever I go, whether in Utah, Europe, Asia or West Africa."
But putting a smartphone with an internet connection into the pocket of a young person is like placing a hot coal in their pocket.
"And they will get burned," Sister Jones said. "We cannot put cell phones with internet access into the hands of young children who aren't old enough to have been sufficiently taught, do not yet have necessary reasoning and decision-making abilities, and who don't have parental controls and other tools to help protect them. Every phone should have safeguards, even teens. This is also good counsel for adults. No one is immune to the bite of a poisonous snake."
While some parents opt for flip phones for their children to limit usage to calling and texting, others have rules such as no phones in bedrooms or bathrooms or follow the counsel "never alone with a phone." Beyond phones are countless other devices — iPads and tablets, gaming systems, smart televisions and DVD players.
"Whatever the needs are for our individual families, let's teach each family member to use technology wisely and positively from the start — to develop a moral mindset. Let's educate children in constructive ways to use technology for good. We can teach them to evaluate by asking themselves, 'Will this serve a good purpose?' Our choices in how we teach our families now will influence future generations."
Just as a parent wouldn't leave their child alone in the middle of New York City, Sister Jones invited parents to not leave them in cyberspace alone.
"As parents, I hope we will consider the importance of our relationships with our children and the specific efforts we are making to protect them," she said. "As we strengthen these loving relationships, children will better understand why God warns against the evils of pornography, they will recognize how to avoid it, and they will be prepared if they do encounter it."
2. Response — I still love you.
"Creating welcoming, open, inviting conversations that encourage children to share their thoughts, experiences, and questions with their parents is not easy," she said. "We can invite children of all ages to come forward if/when they develop any level of a pornography problem — from early, inadvertent exposures to occasional use, to intensive use, and on down to compulsive use."
The earlier the discussions the better, Sister Jones said, and children will come forward more readily when they know they are loved and nothing they say or do can change that love.
But rarely do children come forward voluntarily — that is why it is important for parents to observe and be proactive.
"For some reason, we don't talk very much to youth and children about one of the strongest urges and biggest temptations they will face," she said. "Our reluctance sets them up to be taught primarily by the internet, other children or teenagers, or even Hollywood. Some of us may be hesitant to even use the word pornography around children in an effort to protect their innocence."
One element comes through open — sometimes tough — conversations.
Some parents say, "It feels so awkward. Maybe our parents never talked that openly with us. What if our conversation encourages curiosity? What if they want to know more? How can we expect our children to talk about pornography with us if we never talk about it with them?"
To those parents, Sister Jones encouraged becoming educated, being proactive and working to talk in age-appropriate ways.
"Parents, we must start the conversation and not wait for children to come to us," she said. "I love the suggestion of having regular, frequent, comfortable conversations instead of that one-time event. Talking in the car, after school, or at bedtime are all natural opportunities."
The benefits of caring conversations are that parents and trusted leaders are the experts, not Google; talking can occur in a safe environment; and talking increases the trust of the child, she said.
"We must set reasonable and helpful boundaries, limits and expectations. Helping children create their own internal reasoning for wanting to stay away from porn is essential. If a child does not decide for him or herself where to stand on this issue, he or she will likely become part of the current staggering statistics."
3. Healing — I will always love you.
"When children are exposed to pornography and entrapped by it, they struggle to react, to recover and to heal," Sister Jones said. "Sincere, earnest, constant, firm and patient support is needed as children assume responsibility for their own recovery and make their way forward. No one can provide this kind of support like a parent can."
Sister Jones reminded listeners to show love when they find out that their children have been exposed to pornography.
"They will be embarrassed, frightened and tearful, and so afraid they are in trouble," she said. "It's difficult to take something that has been in the dark and expose it to light."
Feelings of shame and vulnerability, failures and challenges along the way may come during recovery, but the need for constant love is critical.
"Your love is a foundation for what needs to happen, but if someone you love is entrapped, you will likely need to reach out — to seek out professionals who can help your loved one — and also help you."