I saw this article today sent by the Mental Health Academy and feel quite strongly about early exposure to pornography should be viewed as a public health issue for youth.
The Truth about Adolescent Pornography Exposure
Written by Dr. Amanda L. Giordano
Whether or not the public is ready to acknowledge it, the majority of adolescents are viewing pornography. Indeed, more than half of U.S. high school students have been exposed to pornography (Maheaux et al., 2021) with an average age of exposure between 11 and 12 years old (Healy-Cullen et al., 2022; Kraus & Rosenberg, 2014). Additionally, among youth aged 16 to 18 in New Zealand, 85.31% had been exposed to internet pornography, more than half of whom had viewed it accidentally (Healy-Cullen et al., 2022).
Far from being difficult to access, data tell us that the most common method of viewing pornography is free content via smartphones (Herbenick et al., 2020; PornHub, 2021). Data released from the pornography site, YouPorn (2019), revealed over 5 billion site visits in 2019. Among adolescent populations, initial exposure to pornography can be as simple as a teenager passing his smartphone to a friend saying, “have you seen this?”
Given the ubiquitous nature of the internet and popularity of mobile devices, it is important to consider the potential impact of pornography exposure on young people. Although some may believe that pornography exposure is developmentally appropriate and can even be informative, empirical evidence suggests there could be negative consequences for adolescents who view pornography. Specifically, adolescent pornography use has been linked to aggressive or dominant sexual behaviors such as choking or name calling (Shin & Lee, 2019; Wright et al., 2021). This correlation is not necessarily surprising; depending upon the age of the adolescent, they may not have a schema or mental category for sex. Thus, if teenagers are taking their cues about sexual activity from pornography, they may develop sexual scripts that include violent, aggressive, or degrading acts depicted in some pornographic videos. Indeed, among high school students in the U.S., 21.9% had viewed violent pornography (i.e., females forced to engage in sexual acts) and violent pornography exposure significantly predicted teen dating violence (Rostad et al., 2019).
The content of internet pornographic videos is extremely diverse and continues to evolve. Rather than sneaking a peak at a picture in a magazine, youth have access to countless pornographic videos (of varying lengths) of numerous types of sexual behaviors. Much internet pornography may depict “mainstream” sexual activities, yet a portion of pornography entails group sex, violence, domination, paraphilias, or aggression (Carrotte et al., 2020). Furthermore, pornography may deviate substantially from safe sexual practices such as obtaining consent and using condoms. In fact, an analysis of 23 research articles examining the content of pornographic videos reported that condom use was rarely depicted (Carrotte et al., 2020). Therefore, if an adolescent does not have a conceptualization of safe and healthy sexual practices from which to contrast pornographic videos, they may consider the sexual acts of pornography to be “normal” or expected.
Indeed, without an understanding of sex or previous discussions about internet pornography with an adult, the experience of viewing a pornographic video (particularly of violence, rape, group sex, or paraphilias), could be alarming, distressing, and potentially traumatic for a teenager. The adolescent may feel ashamed and guilty on account of what they viewed (especially if they were aroused or curious by the video) and may choose not tell anyone. In fact, researchers found that among American high school students, only 17% talked to their parents about pornography although 57% had been exposed (Widman et al., 2021). Moreover, among youth in New Zealand, the majority of those who were accidentally exposed to pornography (76.15%) did not tell anyone about the experience (Healy-Cullen et al., 2022). Adolescents likely will try to make meaning of the content on their own by trying to answer questions like, “Is this what all adults do?” “Is this normal?” “Is this what is expected of me?” “Do people think of me sexually?” “Am I bad for being aroused?” “What other videos are out there?” Adolescence is a time of cognitive, emotional, and physical development. As the brain matures, children and adolescents take in a wealth of information from the world around them, yet they may not have the experience, information, or cognitive ability to accurately make meaning of what they observe. If left to their own devices, they can adopt distorted or maladaptive beliefs about themselves, the world, and others.
Another potential negative consequence of adolescent pornography use is the objectification of oneself or others. In a recent research study, pornography exposure among adolescents was linked to body comparison and self-objectification (Maheux et al., 2021). Thus, teens who view pornography may have faulty assumptions about the realism of the videos and fail to consider ways in which the videos or the actors’ bodies have been altered or enhanced. Youth are particularly sensitive to the opinions of their peers during adolescence and may feel inadequate or undesirable in comparison to the actors in pornographic videos. Furthermore, they may begin to compare others to what they see in pornography or sexually objectify those around them (particularly women).
In light of these trends, it is important for mental health professionals, teachers, and caregivers to engage in preventative efforts regarding pornography exposure among adolescents rather than responding only after an initial exposure. Given that the average age of first pornography exposure is between 11 and 12 years old, it may be helpful to discuss the realities of pornography with older children (ages 9 and 10). In these conversations, it is important to give children (1) a framework for understanding pornography and (2) directions for what to do when they see it. For example, a teacher, counselor, or caregiver may say:
“There are lots of pictures and videos on the internet. Some are made for children and teenagers, and some are made for adults. There may be times when you come across a video that is made for adults—videos of people who do not have clothes on, or people doing things that you do not understand. If you see a video like this, come and tell (me, your teacher, your parent, your counselor) so we can talk about it. It is never your fault if you see these types of videos, so don’t be afraid to come tell me or another adult about it. Do you have any questions?”
As a society, it is important to recognize the prevalence of pornography exposure among adolescent populations and prepare them for what they may encounter online. Once a teenager discloses pornography exposure to an adult, the adult can then process their experience, provide accurate information about sex, and dispel any myths that the adolescent may have adopted. For example, the adult and adolescent can discuss the realism of pornography, the importance of consent, the difference between paid actors versus real sexual experiences, the risks of objectifying men and women, body comparison and self-worth, safe sex practices, and the normalcy of sexual curiosity and arousal.
With the continuous evolution of new technology and devices (e.g., virtual reality), the accessibility of pornography will only increase with time. To set adolescents up for success and help facilitate safe online practices, mental health professionals, teachers, and caregivers must be prepared to broach the topic of internet pornography with children and adolescents and create safe spaces for them to process their experiences.
About the author:
Dr. Amanda L. Giordano is an associate professor of counselling at the University of Georgia. She specializes in addiction counselling and has clinical, instructional, and scholarly experience related to both chemical and behavioural addictions. She is the author of A Clinical Guide to Treating Behavioral Addictions.