Evangelical groups are turning to artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to help their members fight addiction to online pornography in a budding industry that one scholar calls an emerging "purity-industrial complex."
As pornography has exploded beyond just websites to apps and social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr and others, tech companies closely affiliated with church groups are capitalizing on the fears of devout Christians that "porn is the greatest threat to Christian purity and even the moral standard of the nation," said Samuel Perry, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and author of "Addicted to Lust."
A recent report by the Washington-based National Center on Sexual Exploitation cited a study of university students that found that 93% of boys and 62% of girls were exposed to online pornography during their adolescence.
Another study showed that among college-going men, nearly half were exposed to pornography as early as 13 years of age. A majority, or about 61 percent, of those accessing salacious material did so using their smartphones, the center said.
"It used to be that if you wanted to access porn you had to go to a seedy movie theater or go in a trenchcoat and buy from a seedy store," Perry told CQ Roll Call. But the accessibility and anonymity of the internet has dramatically increased access to pornography and brought new fears to the devout, he said.
Covenant Eyes, based in Owosso, Mich., is one of the companies that creates and sells software filters designed to detect computer or device users accessing pornography. The company works with pastors and ministries to address pornography use among their members.
"You know that people in your ministry are watching porn, and you know that porn use hinders spiritual growth and healthy relationships," the Covenant Eyes website says, addressing itself to pastors. "But figuring out how to effectively help people overcome porn and find freedom can be overwhelming."
After buying a subscription to Covenant Eyes and installing the software on their devices, users are asked to provide an email and phone numbers for a list of friends, family or pastors, called accountability partners. If a user then accesses pornography on their laptop or smartphone, the software then would capture a screenshot, blur it and send an email to the "user's ally or allies, who they have selected to help them in their journey," says Dan Armstrong, a spokesman for the company.
The ally or allies then get what's called a "concerning screenshot" and indicate that they should review the activity, according to the company's website. "The concerning screenshot will not be immediately shown on the report so as not to immediately expose an ally (someone receiving a report) to potential pornography," the website said. But the blurring will be removed if the reviewer clicks on an inspect button, the company said.
The goal is similar to the technique used by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people overcome addiction by creating partnerships with sponsors who help newcomers stay sober.