Teens and internet pornography

While many parents with teenagers will recall “sneaky peeks” at adult magazines during their youth, the Internet has made hard-core pornography widely available to today’s teens. With the Internet playing such a central role in the lives of most teenagers, it is questioned what impact exposure to pornography may have on them during a potentially vulnerable phase of their development.

Research in this area is difficult to conduct and results vary but certain trends are clear. In many developed countries, around 75-90 percent of teens are exposed to online pornography before the age of 18 years. Not surprisingly, boys outnumber girls in this respect. Boys are also more inclined to purposefully seek out pornography while many boys and girls have been involuntary exposed to online pornography (with many common homework search words turning up pornography sites which are difficult to leave once accessed).

Most that view pornography will be doing so out of natural curiosity and for “educational” purposes. Boys are more inclined to use it for inspiration and sexual excitement, while teenagers that view pornography together tend to gauge their peers’ reactions in comparison to their own, thus helping them to establish what is considered “normal”. Depending on the sites accessed, emotions and attitudes associated therewith include excitement, embarrassment, shock, disgust, and even guilt or shame. Boys tend to be more accepting while girls are more ambivalent and experience conflicting emotions.

Studies devoted to examining the effects of exposure to online pornography have failed to produce straight forward answers. Some suggest a link to more permissive/ risky sexual attitudes and behaviour, viewing of women as sex objects, and viewing sex as devoid of emotion, intimacy, or responsibility. Those that use pornography excessively are said to be more socially isolated, have little parental involvement, and engage in troubling behaviour like substance abuse. It has also been suggested that delinquents seek out pornography as a “symptom” of their behaviour. However, one should always consider which came first – the troubling behaviour or the pornography use?

On the other hand, and contrary to what many believe, teenagers appear to becoming more sexually conservative despite being exposed to more liberal online activities. In the US and Canada, fewer teenagers are having sex, less are falling pregnant, and crime levels are falling. In New Zealand, the pregnancy rate has remained fairly constant while the rate of offending amongst youth has declined, especially for serious offending. With pornography, many teenagers that are inadvertently exposed to pornography quickly leave these sites, especially if more deviant in nature, though few tell their parents.

A Swedish study found that most young people under the age of 20 acknowledged that pornographic sex was different to sex in real life relationships, although girls were somewhat concerned that boys would want to enact some of the things that they watched, like anal sex. Most were able to critically assess what they viewed and to integrate it into their emotional lives in a healthy manner. Teenagers that grow up in loving and caring family contexts are more likely to be able to safely evaluate what they are exposed to in life and not experience any adverse consequences. While inquisitive, teenagers also have morals and are aware of what is considered taboo.

Some potential dangers of viewing online pornography include unwanted sexual solicitation, “sexting” (sending explicit pictures via cell phone or the Internet, which can lead to images being passed around to others, with embarrassing consequences), compulsive behaviour, and exposure to deviant images such as child pornography. There is no clear evidence to suggest that watching child pornography will result in child sex offending; rather, there are likely to be many complex variables at play. Concerning behaviour (such as evidence of viewing deviant pornography, excessive pornography use, accusations of being sexually aggressive, or being socially isolated and/or having friends of a much younger age) is more likely to be associated with a minority of vulnerable youth. Those who are predisposed to offending will be more inclined to offend against a child if they view and fantasise about child pornography. Of concern, were findings from a New Zealand Internal Affairs study which found that 20 percent of those apprehended for trading child pornography images were school-aged males.

Parents are encouraged to educate their children by encouraging them to critically evaluate what they encounter and to resist anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Filtering and parental monitoring systems are available but far from fool-proof. In the end, open discussion and education is likely to be more beneficial than protection.


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