In the late 1930s, Nikolaas Tinbergen demonstrated a new concept in biology: “supernormal stimulus.” Introducing plaster eggs larger and more brightly colored than ordinary eggs into birds’ nests, he found that birds could be tricked into neglecting their real eggs in favor of the fake ones. Similarly, he used models, larger and more brightly colored than ordinary butterflies, to lure male butterflies away from real females. Animals can’t always tell the difference between a counterfeit and the real thing.
Unfortunately, that is true of us as well. Through carefully documented research, Dr. Donald Hilton, a renowned neurosurgeon at the University of Texas, has demonstrated how internet pornography uses supernormal stimuli to manipulate users with a counterfeit depiction of love.
Science is now learning something the priests of our archdiocese have known for some time, through their work in the confessional: Addiction to internet pornography is real, and more people than we would like to imagine suffer from it. The ubiquity of the internet and the smartphone has created an environment where the average age a child is first exposed to internet pornography is now only 11 years old. All it takes is a link on social media or a curious search on Google and the internet can introduce a grade-schooler to a supernormal stimulus that can ultimately lead to addiction.
This creates an enormous problem for parents. Children are unequipped to respond to the graphic material online that routinely objectifies and degrades women. Pornography use, strongly correlated with negative psychological outcomes in adults, represents a grave threat to children’s development. God gave us eros, our attraction to the opposite sex, to lead us to a vocation of sincere self-giving for the good of the other. We cannot let a counterfeit version of eros deprive our children of a chance for real love.
Our response to this problem must begin with mercy. When St. Paul proclaimed, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate,” he spoke for all of us. (Romans 7:15) If we find our children have gone places they should not go online, we cannot let our anger at the violation of their innocence suggest we are ashamed of them. Rather, we must stay calm and help them understand the situation. Check out marriagefamilylife.seattlearchdiocese.org for resources to help with this conversation. The site also offers some best practices for introducing sensible limitations on children’s use of technology.
The next thing we must do for our children is tell them about real love. The forces promoting pornography’s false vision of love depend on our silence. Don’t give it to them. Instead, we should take the initiative to sit our children down early and often to teach them about God’s plan for love.
Personal stories are a great way to do this. Before I was a teenager, my mother told me stories about the things she liked about my father when they dated, how he was thoughtful and a good listener. This is a great strategy for teaching our kids. A mom who tells her son about how she met his father and what made him attractive to her provides her son a real answer to the question of “what women want.” A story is memorable and doesn’t come across as preachy. Thinking about the narrative of our own experience helps us to think through what we want our children to know. Sharing our story with our children can help them make sense of their own.
Invest some time talking with your child about what real love looks like. You can find a list of conversation starters that can help at marriagefamilylife.seattlearchdiocese.org.
Despite the counterfeit images out there, true love is beautiful and good. Let’s make sure our children know how to recognize the real thing.
If you know an adult who struggles with pornography, there is help for them, too. Send them to marriagefamilylife.seattlearchdiocese.org for resources to help them break free.
Northwest Catholic - May 2019
Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
El Diácono Eric Paige es el Director para el Matrimonio, la Vida familiar y Formación en la Arquidiócesis de Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: email@example.com.