Ep. 20 Jessica Zurcher: How Having Hard Conversations Prepare Our Children

Ken Krogue: Hello everybody. This is Thom Harrison and Ken Krogue with the EternalCore show, the podcast and vidcast. We’re doing both together. And today, we’ve got Jessica Zurcher. She’s a communications professor at BYU. Done some really interesting research, so we wanted her, and she’s also a pretty good friend. We’re grateful to have her on the show with us. Thanks Jessica for joining us.

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah, thank you so much for the invitation. I appreciate that.

Ken Krogue: Absolutely. We’ve been looking over, there’s a lot to read about your background, so we wonder if you could maybe give us a bit of an overview of some of the projects that have brought you to where you are today.

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah, you bet. So I actually, before working at BYU, I taught in secondary education for like eight years. So I had an opportunity to teach theater and public speaking and English. And I worked with middle school and high school students. I now work with graduate students, so I’ve gone the whole spectrum, lots of teaching opportunities. So that’s kind of where my love and interest in working with young people started. And during that time, I had some experiences that really influenced my overall trajectory and research of where I am today. Specifically, working and just watching as students interacted with technology and seeing some of the amazing things that can happen because of technology in the world that we live in today. But also, some of the perils that many people experience because of technology or you know, some of those things that align together.

Jessica Zurcher: So, one experience in particular that I’ll share just really quickly with you. I remember going into my middle school seventh grade English class. And that day specifically, we had, the students went and grabbed their computers and just started doing their English assignments. I had one student that grabbed his computer and started going on things. But I noticed, you know, about halfway into the period, his laptop started to shift a little bit away from me. So immediately, as a teacher, I thought, “Oh my goodness, I should go and check on the student and see what’s going on.” So I walked around and meandered behind him, and this student was very innocently playing a video game online. You know, throwing chunks of cheese and jumping over different objects. But, what was alarming to me, what was in the left hand side of his screen, and that was a pornographic image.

Jessica Zurcher: So this student wasn’t searching for this particular image at all. It had popped up at him. We had filters in place at the school. For me as a teacher, especially trying to keep the students safe from different types of content, both emotionally and physically as well, this was alarming to me. So this really directed my interest. I was doing my PhD at the time at the University of Utah. So this really directed my interests in terms of what’s being done about some of the harmful content that adolescents encounter online, specifically with pornography. I’ve also done some work with cyber-bullying as well. And what role specifically can parents play in efforts to try and combat or to help children engage in this digital environment that they’ve been placed in during this time?

Jessica Zurcher: So that’s kind of where my research went. It’s been really cool to watch as the Lord has placed different experiences and opportunities in my life. Because, going into a PhD program, I did not anticipate at all that I would study anti-pornography movements. It was a little bit scary to me to try and figure out, how can I help in this area? But the Lord has really guided and directed my course and direction. And it’s opened up some really cool doors as well as helped me to realize just how important family communication and parent-child communication specifically is in the digital media and environment that we live in today.

Thom Harrison:                  What surprises came to you from your experience in receiving that help from the Lord?

Jessica Zurcher: I had one professor during my PhD program, where she said, “Are you sure you really want to research this? Are you sure you want to be stereotyped as the pornography researcher?” “The porn lady” is what she called it. And, you know, there’s a lot of… I forgot my train of thought here. But essentially, there’s a lot of confusion or a lot of ambiguity, is what I was looking for, in terms of the concept of pornography and how it’s talked about both culturally and within families. So even just talking to different people of saying, “Hey, this is something that we need to explore more in terms of the anti-pornography movement and how it’s being talked about in families.” That definitely has been somewhat surprising, but also it’s been amazing to watch how the Lord has opened up those paths.

Thom Harrison: I always find it very interesting what we plan or what we project is going to happen. And then all those interesting little twists and turns that come to us when we truly get into it. Often, it’s much different than our projected reality of what we thought it was going to be. So thank you for sharing that.

Jessica Zurcher: Oh yeah. 100%. You know, as I went along in doing this research, and still there’s a lot of work to be done, but a couple of really cool things happened. One specifically is I finished my dissertation, and then I was actually contacted by UCAP, which is the Utah Coalition Against Pornography. They said, “Hey,” you know, “We are looking for research having to do with parents in the State of Utah as we’re trying to push pornography as a public health crisis within the State of Utah. Do you happen to have anything for us?” So it was really cool to say, “Yeah, here is all of this research that I’ve spent two years looking at, and conducting, and analyzing. And please, use it to do something good.” So that was part of the research that was used in pushing forward pornography as a health crisis in the state of Utah. So little things like that have happened along the way to open up some of those doors.

Ken Krogue: Are more people getting involved? Is it becoming a real, constructive program that you feel like we’re making progress?

Jessica Zurcher: You know, I think in terms of the conversation, I have seen more of a push, you know, Fight the New Drug is doing some amazing things, the various coalitions in different states. I’ve had the opportunity to work withmEnough is Enough, which is a national organization that has done several movements in terms of having more open conversations and dialogue. So, you know, and it is really interesting talking about the subject, because I talk about my research in my communication classes with my students. And they’re very open and wanting this information. So for me, you know, I was nervous to share because it’s a very sensitive and difficult topic. But, as I’ve done so, I’ve been amazed at the need and the awareness that people have about it.

Thom Harrison: In my clinical practice, Jessica, I’ve found that often when the individual that’s struggling with the pornography problem, that they have a whole different definition of why they’re doing, or what it is they’re doing, compared to their spouse, or their girlfriend, or their therapist. And I find, when we can bring those definitions together, especially between an adolescent young man or young woman and their parents, or especially between the husband and wife. I find then the healing really improves. Do you find anything in the treatment that would back that up, or is that just a clinical experience that we’ve seen?

Jessica Zurcher: You know, there is, within the research, there is some discussion on the ambiguity of the definition of pornography. The scholarship outlines several different types of definitions. Which, it’s really interesting that you mentioned that, because especially when you’re looking at parent-child communication about pornography for instance, if the child defines it or identifies it very differently than the parent, it becomes really difficult to have a meaningful conversation when those definitions are so diverse.

Thom Harrison: And therapy just fails when you have that diversity.

Jessica Zurcher: So the literature does, from what I’ve seen, the literature does acknowledge that there is this difference between how people conceptualize it. So that’s one of the key things that I found within my research is first educating parents about pornography, it’s impacts, so that they feel more of a self efficacy, if you will, to be able to discuss it with others.

Thom Harrison: That’s one thing I really like about Fight the New Drug and those three new films they brought out. Because I think it brings that definition together and people can have a shared meaning about this is what we are seeing, this is the research, and they’re watching it together with their son. And then, I find a communication really starts to happen that just wasn’t going on before.

Jessica Zurcher: Yes. And even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, they’ve released a couple of teaching tools, some family home evening lessons, and a couple of small videos. And one of the first things that they encourage children to do within those is to first identify pornography for what it is or call it for what it is or name it. And I think that’s really important, because sometimes we just, our gut response is to pull away or to lose that sense of openness. So, you know, arming children with the ability to say, “This is pornography, and I can talk about it” is important.

Thom Harrison: Thank you. Thank you very much. That’s very helpful.

Ken Krogue: In fact, that’s really the big part of your primary presentation is teaching parents how to talk to children about pornography as a tool that can assist the whole family in doing better at coping with the challenges. Isn’t that right? It’s more communication than almost anything, isn’t it?

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah. You know, it’s building that communication environment within the home to be able to have conversations, not just specifically about pornography, but about all sorts of difficult topics. Sometimes we think about talking to kids about a hard conversation. We think it’s like a one and done type of conversation. And you know, imagine a child if they have one conversation, but they don’t necessarily feel comfortable about talking about other different topics. It’s going to be much more difficult to address those things when they do happen, and when they do come up. So, establishing that type of communication pattern within the home, not just about pornography, but about all sorts of different topics is really crucial in helping kids learn how to talk about these things.

Thom Harrison: So it’s much more a one and now you’ve just begun, instead of one and done. 

Jessica Zurcher: Yes. Yes, very much so.

Ken Krogue: So everybody, this is Thom Harrison and Ken Krogue. We’ve got Jessica Zurcher. She’s going to be speaking at our conference at the end of March. And what if you could give us just a couple of, we don’t want to give away the talk here Jessica, but maybe just a couple of pointers. Things that our listeners can take away even today that might assist them in doing better with communications perhaps.

Thom Harrison: And also creating then a sense of, “I really want to go here.” Now we’re really putting you on the hot seat, Jessica.

Jessica Zurcher: You bet. You know, within my research, so I went out and did an in-depth qualitative interview study and talked to various parents as well as looked at the expansive research about parents talking to children about sex, and about other types of technology, and other types of education. One of the main core patterns that I’ve found is parenting styles as well as this idea of open conversation or communication. So, in the presentation that I’ll be giving in March, that’s one thing that I want to give more specific details in. How do we establish more open communative environments within the home? As well as, what are some of the tools that we can have within our tool belt, if you will, about addressing some of these hard topics? You know, it’s really interesting because sometimes individuals, we try and separate these difficult issues that children are facing with technology and adolescence. We separate them and say, “Oh, this has to do with social media” or “This has to do with cyber bullying” or “This has to do with pornography.” And my research really points to this idea that if we learn how to talk about these topics, and how to help children develop this idea of media literacy, there’s a lot of power that can come from doing that. Not just within specific given areas but across the board. So that’s what my presentation will be focused on.

Thom Harrison: Well, I can’t wait. I won’t take my lunch during your talk. I’ll be there to listen.

Jessica Zurcher: Your kind.

Ken Krogue: In fact, I think there’s a fun opportunity right here. I’m going to call an audible if that’s okay. I’d like to take a minute and explore, maybe even, we’ll make it a separate episode. But, since we’ve got everything all wired up and ready to go, maybe what we could do is talk about cyber bullying. That’s really interesting to me. That’s a new phrase that, you know, it’s just starting to have some impact, but it’s a big deal. And I know some of Thom’s growing up years he experienced some challenges with a bully. And I’ve been through that. I was the bookworm growing up and had some challenges with some local bullies. And kids, that’s a big deal. I remember how hard kids are on each other. Can you maybe walk us through even the phrase and the whole cyber bullying concepts, some of the stuff that you’ve learned about it?

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah, you bet. You know, as I mentioned before, my experiences in teaching in secondary education, they just really opened up my eyes to some of these issues. I mentioned the experience that I had with the little seventh grader in terms of pornography. I had a similar experience where I had two female students who ended up in a massive hallway fight. In the middle of the school, you know, ripping each other’s hair out, and punching, and it all started because of cyber bullying.

Ken Krogue: Define what the phrase means. What is cyber bullying all about?

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah, you bet. So, in terms of cyber bulling, it’s the type of negative interactions that you’ll see within bullying, but it’s happening online. So there’s different types of bullying. There’s physical bullying, there’s verbal bullying, and they’re tied into emotional bullying. And when all of that is taken into an online context, that’s where we see cyber bullying happen.

Thom Harrison: As a child, at least my bully, I was only concerned when I could see him coming on his bike or see him physically. But now, these kids, it’s going on all the time, because it just continues on in their cyber world. And I would think it would be overwhelming to realize, “This is going on even when I’m asleep.” Because, at least with my bullying experience, I was thinking about it before I went to bed, but I knew he wasn’t in my bedroom. And I knew that he wasn’t talking to all my friends. So I would think that it would be much more intense for a child and for an adolescent.

Ken Krogue: You can’t get away from it.

Jessica Zurcher: Well, and unfortunately too, the incident that happened with one of my students. You know, the bullying started happening online, and then other people joined into the communication and started attacking this other student. So, it also, it kind of amplifies the bullying that can happen. Because it’s now happening in a community setting, which is both for the good and for the bad. Hopefully there’s people out there that will stop it, because they see that it’s happening.

Ken Krogue: Do they step in and stop it?

Jessica Zurcher: Unfortunately, not until it turned into physical bullying at the school. And what was so interesting for me specifically is this happened with one of my students. I noticed that she had disappeared for a couple of days. I wasn’t sure what had happened. And then I sat in a faculty meeting where the principal explained, “Okay, here’s some of the various things that happened. Here’s the situation.” And the principal asked us, as a faculty, “Okay, what do we do about this?” And there was just silence. There was silence. Because as a teacher, an educator, it’s hard to jump into those online contexts when we’re not necessarily involved with them per se. So, trying to figure out how to manage something that’s not happening in my classroom, but it’s so heavily impacting it.

Thom Harrison: Is there any research on if this happens more in elementary, junior high, high school, and does it continue on and into college situations? Could you tell us a little bit about that, Jessica?

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah, so the research, it traces it throughout all of those various levels, so within elementary, middle school, high school. My specific research looked at, yet again, some preventative tools. And what we did find that was really interesting, so basically we went and we had longitudinal data that looked at adolescence when they were 12 and 13 years old. It looked at their perception of cyber-bullying and bullying in general. And we compared that data to if their parents had addressed it with them when they were younger to when they were older, and their attitudes and beliefs about that. That same pattern that I found within my dissertation in terms of this influence that parents can have in having these open conversations about cyber bullying, we saw that very same pattern. So those children, that had had conversations early on with their parents, later on in life we saw it longitudinally that they were more resistant to cyber bullying. And they had more negative attitudes and beliefs about it. So the same type of pattern that I saw within pornography, also as well in cyber bullying, and in that particular instance.

Thom Harrison: So it sounds, with that information, that this might even carry on into adulthood.

Jessica Zurcher: Yes and with the… Sorry, go ahead.

Thom Harrison: You know, depending on the maturity level of the individuals involved, this could go on, you know, far into adulthood.

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah. It’s really, and this is what really caught my interest. In terms of pornography specifically… A very similar study was conducted by Eric Rasmussen from Texas Tech. He looked at conversations that happened with children, about parents talking to kids about pornography, when they were early or earlier on in comparison to their beliefs and attitudes later. He found that similar effect as well. So, you know, for me it’s been kind of connecting all these various dots in terms of what’s happening when kids, especially that pivotal age when they’re 10, 11, 12 years old. What’s the communication that’s happening and how can that impact lifelong?

Thom Harrison: I remember in graduate school, one of my professors approached me and said, “Thom, you don’t even know. You don’t even understand what you’re going to be studying and dealing with in your career.” And he said, “The majority of what you’re going to be doing is not even an issue right now.” And, you know, in talking with you today, I’m realizing that isn’t it wonderful that we have individuals, and we have a society, that’s willing to say, “Yeah, in your PhD experience, in your doctoral process, we want you to spend your time. Because, these were issues that were issues back then, but they weren’t researched and they weren’t talked about much. And we saw them very differently back in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, even two thousands, than we do today.

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah. You know, it’s definitely something that keeps me very passionate about communications, because it is changing so quickly. And we’re seeing very much that same pattern. You know, the pornography content that people came into contact with even 20 years ago, very, very different from the accessibility that we see today because of the Internet. So yeah, you see that across the board for sure.

Thom Harrison: The accessibility, but also the brain research that has taken place. We understand the impact it has. I think we don’t often think that pornographers spend millions of dollars to find, and to figure out, how to addict a four year old, or an eight year old, or a 14 year old, or a 60 year old, or a 20 year old. They’re spending millions of dollars every year to figure out how best or what best grabs them or gets them involved.

Jessica Zurcher:  Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I, when I first started doing my research, I was, I looked at all sorts of anti-pornography organizations and what are they doing? And I realized that, across the board, one of the key things is we can’t take away or just put a huge filter in and say, “This is going to do the… It’s going to do its job.” We can’t rely on filters. It has to be more about teaching children media literacy and helping them to be able to have the steps and the skills that they need. So that when they come across, whether it be pornography, cyber bulling, something they see on social media, they have the resources and the support that they need to be able to sort through that content.

Thom Harrison: But isn’t that the only way that we’re going to resolve this? Not to really fight against those billions of dollars, but to help people know how to make choices. So they say, “No thank you, or “I don’t want that in my life.” You know, we have to choose against it, not fight the process, because the process is just too large. There’s too many billions of dollars behind it.

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah

Ken Krogue: We had another episode with Dan Gray who, LifeStar, they have 34 facilities around the western region. And he shared that there’s an interesting dynamic going on with the problem with pornography. It’s also the access to it. They saw a huge surge when the internet came online. And they saw a completely different, and even more powerful surge, when the mobile devices really became a force. Have you seen the same thing? Has the technology itself been part of the problem?

Jessica Zurcher: In terms of accessibility, anonymity, certainly, for sure. You know, pornography has been around for a long, long period of time. However, in terms of how it’s access and gained, it’s certainly much more easily accessed today. What’s really interesting too is where is it transitioning to? And there is some conversation, you know, all the developments that are happening with video games and virtual reality, and unfortunately, how that may play into the pornography industry. That’s also what’s being talked about.

Ken Krogue: That may be the biggest issue yet, because it’s more than just visual. It becomes sensorial, especially with the virtual reality.

Jessica Zurcher: Yeah. Yeah, it’s scary. It’s scary. So yet again, you know, it’s teaching. Because kids, I mean, they’re going to encounter all sorts of different issues that are related to technology. So what types of tools can we give them to help them manage and sort through all of those?

Thom Harrison: Dr. Zurcher, it’s always wonderful chatting with you. I hope we get other chances to do this again. Thank you so much for making yourself available. And please remember on March 29th and 30th, 2019 at Little America, she’ll be one of our mainline speakers. We’re so excited to have you there, and to have her with us too. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ken Krogue: Thanks so much Dr. Zurcher.

Jessica Zurcher: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you.

Thom Harrison: Thanks. Bye Bye.

Ken Krogue: Bye Bye.

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