Communications professor Jessica Zurcher shared her research at a School of Communications Beckham Lecture
Jessica Zurcher at the Winter 2019 Beckham Lecture. (Alyssa Lyman)
Pornography can be difficult to discuss, which is why many parents completely avoid addressing the subject with their kids. In fact, communications professor Jessica Zurcher argues that this isn’t a healthy parenting approach; it could even be detrimental to children later in life. Since almost 90 percent of children ages eight to 16 have been exposed to porn, usually accidentally while they’re doing homework, a hesitation to discuss the issue in advance can leave children unprepared and vulnerable.
Zurcher presented findings from her research at the Winter 2019 Beckham Lecture. She opened the lecture by asking the question “What is the purpose of technology?” and then answering it with a clip from a BYU Education Week devotional by Elder David A. Bednar titled “To Sweep the Earth as with a Flood.”
“Neither technology nor rapid change in and of itself are good or evil,” said Zurcher, explaining her takeaways from the video. “The real challenge is to understand both within the context of the eternal plan of happiness.”
Zurcher said she didn’t immediately make a connection between technology and the plan of happiness, but that as she did research, she started to see patterns emerging.
“I started to notice that with the role of technology there are so many positives — it’s fast, it’s great — but there’s also a lot of negative parallels that we experience,” said Zurcher.
The duality of technology’s role is prevalent in Zurcher’s research. After eight years of compiling several meta analysis reports about adolescents, Zurcher explained that she and Sarah Coyne, the study’s lead author, found no clear implication that social media or the internet are used predominantly positively or negatively.
“It’s all dependent on how we use it,” said Zurcher. “How we use it, how we talk about it and how we allow it to be an influence in our lives.”
Zurcher told the audience that technology is neither inherently negative or positive. Instead, it’s up to us to decide how we use it she said. (Alyssa Lyman)
After identifying various factors that influence a child’s relationship with technology, Zurcher dove into the literature surrounding preventative measures against pornography. She read a quote by Patricia Marks Greenfield that stated, “A warm and communicative parent-child relationship is the most important non-technical means that parents can use to deal with the challenges of sexualized media environments.”
Zurcher also discovered that the regularity with which a parent discusses pornography with their child will influence that child’s attitude towards and usage of pornography in adulthood. In a 2015 study by Eric Rasmussen, Zurcher found that consistent conversations about pornography caused the children, now adults, to have a significantly less positive attitude towards porn and could motivate them not to use or be a part of pornographic content.
The next step for Zurcher was to figure out how to create a warm, open parent-child relationship that allows these conversations to happen. As she looked at different parenting styles, she found that an authoritative approach, which is characterized by being responsive to a child’s emotional needs and setting standards, was the most effective because it involves a balance of kind interactions with guidelines and expectations.
Zurcher has come up with three ways that parents can use the authoritative parenting style when talking about pornography and other media-related issues.
First, she suggested that parents educate themselves. If parents aren’t knowledgeable on the topic, the likelihood of them having these conversations with their children drops significantly.
Second, Zurcher said that parents need to have a sense of self-efficacy. It is important for parents to believe they have the ability and information to make difficult conversations with their children go positively.
Lastly, Zurcher said to “develop an open communication pattern in your home that’s based on all sorts of topics so that when a child comes in contact with something they may not understand or that they may have mixed emotions about, they know they have a safe space to go and chat with someone about it.”
Taking steps like listening more, asking questions and removing shame-based language will allow parents to develop open communications, said Zurcher.
“Help children understand that just because they saw something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s their fault,” said Zurcher.
It’s also important not to label all types of pornography use, such as inadvertent exposure, as an addiction, said Zurcher. She then cited President Dallin H. Oaks’ 2015 article on pornography.
“Having a better understanding of where a person is at in the process will also allow a better understanding of what action is necessary to recover,” said Oaks.
Zurcher also recommends implementing an authoritative approach to find age-appropriate ways to have difficult conversations with children. She said there is a wide variety of resources that parents can use, from pictures books to family home evening lesson plans The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published on their website.
Parents have the responsibility to teach their child how to use technology in a positive way, said Zurcher. Even though these conversations can be difficult, Zurcher believes there is hope.
“It’s scary sometimes to jump into these topics, but I have felt the Spirit and the guidance of my Heavenly Father to be able to accomplish this work,” said Zurcher.