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The Naked Truth: Kids, Teens, Pornography and Screens

 

WARNING- Content is this blog post may distress some readers. It addresses the issue of pornography.

 

Pornpgraphy isn’t new.  In years gone by pornography was available to young people via Playboy magazines (‘hidden’ at the back of the local newsagents), or via VHS videos and more recently via DVDs.

What’s new however, is how much is now available, how easy it is for kids and teens to access it and the type of content (literally) at their fingertips.  Online pornography is now readily available and poses a mammoth problem to our young people today.

Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the data as it relates to pornography, kids and teens:

 

This means it’s no longer a matter of if your child or teenager will see pornography, it’s a matter of when they’ll first encounter it. As the infographic above illustrates, parents, educators and health professionals also need to be aware of what sexual behaviours kids are being exposed to via pornography, given that research suggests 88% of pornographic content includes aggressive behaviour (typically directed towards females) and that exposure is impacting kids’ physical and mental health.

Sadly, pornography is in many instances kids’ first sex educator. Whether it’s via intentional or accidental means, our kids are at risk of seeing pornography (and very violent content at that) and at increasingly younger and younger ages. Some estimates suggest that kids are first seeing pornography as young as 8 years of age (as you could appreciate gathering accurate research evidence about this topic is ethically challenging and often methodologically-flawed. However, health professionals and teachers anecdotally report that it’s common for children between 8-11 years seeing pornography). Other research suggests that first exposure occurs around 10 years of age. Whilst we could agonise over the ‘statistics’ in terms of age of exposure, what I’m hearing from health professionals, parents and educators, is that the age of first exposure is getting younger and younger.

“Some kids now claim that it’s more difficult to avoid pornography than it is to access it.”

The ease of access can result in children sometimes accidentally stumbling on pornography through inaccurate or innocent Google searches, pop-up advertisements, or second-hand exposure via siblings, peers or parents’ shared devices (I’ve even heard of kids seeing inappropriate content on other people’s mobile phones on public transport). Some kids are intentionally watching pornography for entertainment and to garner ideas about sex.

Regardless of how kids access pornography, in most instances what they’re viewing gives an inaccurate depiction of sexual relationships. These videos do not show loving, respectful, consensual relationships (in fact, one study found that consent occured in less than 10% of videos analysed) and rarely does it depict safe sexual practices. Instead, online pornograohy provides kids and young people with confusing, inaccurate and even dangerous messages about sex by normalising aggression, non-consensual sex and even promoting racism and unsafe practices

Problems with pornography exposure

1. Pornography is providing an inaccurate depiction of loving consensual relationships

What kids and teens are now viewing online is not akin to what was once viewed in explicit magazines. Not only is the medium different (dynamic vs static images which makes it more captivating, appealing and realistic), but the content of pornography has changed over time.

Studies have shown that pornographic content has become increasingly more violent over the years. It’s now estimated that 88% of pornographic content includes aggressive behaviour4. It has been suggested that some users have developed a ‘tolerance’ to pornography and now demand more explicit and violent content to elicit similar arousal levels.

The human brain has mirror neurons (they activate when we observe someone doing something), meaning that we’re biologically wired to imitate behaviour. Our mirror neurons are a network of nerve cells run along our motor nerves and their prime function is to emulate, or mirror, everything seen. The observed actions are stored in our brains to access later when we need to perform that task or action. If young people are watching violent sex that’s typically depicted in pornography (and no one is talking to them about it) then they are likely to copy this behaviour in real life with their partners.

 

2. Altering young people’s sexual behaviours and attitudes

As confronting as this is to read, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of hearing horrific stories first-hand from a range of health professionals (GPs, social workers, counsellors and psychologists). Health professionals are anecdotally reporting treating more and more young people with serious anal and genital injuries sustained through violent sex. A recent article in The Australian highlighted the severity of this issue.

There are also reports that increasing numbers of teenage boys are suffering from erectile dysfunction because of the amount and type of pornograpohy they’ve been exposed to. One study suggested 14% of teens have erectile dysfunction issues.

Pornography exposure can also lead to early sexual experimentation and sexual intercourse and risky sexual behaviours.

 

3. Addictive behaviours

There are concerns that compulsive porn use can result in an ‘addiction’. We also know that teens are vulnerable to addictive behaviours given the developing architecture of their brain. Like substances that people can become addicted to, psychological addictions, such as pornography addiction, can be understood via ‘operant conditioning’ principles (where a certain behaviour is rewarded and reinforced, which makes you want to repeat the behaviour).

Pornography is particularly rewarding for young people (activating the reward centre in the brain, which in turn hijacks our impulse control centre of the brain) because it taps into a basic, mammalian, instinctual drive: sexual pleasure. Therefore, young people can quickly become addicted to pornography because it caters for one of their basic biological drivers AND passively watching pornographic content is much easier than finding and engaging in sexual relationships in real life when you’re an adolescent5. When the pursuit of sexual pleasure becomes excessive, or comes at the cost of other important or valued behaviours, it can become a problem.

It’s important to note that there are other social, psychological and even biological factors that may contribute to young people developing a pornography addiction. Watching online pornography is not the sole causal factor.

 

4. Possible mental health impacts

Given that the brain doesn’t fully develop until the twenties (early 20s for females and late 20s for males), it has been speculated that ponography usage could contribute to poor mental health outcomes (it’s important to note, the research does not yet confirm if there’s a causal relationship).

Pornography has been associated with poor body image for females and feelings of inferiority in males, as they feel that they cannot perform in a way that’s depicted in pornography.

Strategies to minimise kids’ and teens’ exposure to pornography

// Talk early and often

in The Pornography Problem Plaguing Parents Masterclass I provide specific scripts for parents to tackle this awkward conversation. (I can’t guarantee you won’t still feel a tad uncomfortable, but these suggested conversation starters and ideas will help take the guesswork and cringe-worthy discussions and provide simple and realistic ideas to tackle this topic regardless of your child’s age). Remember, prevention is better than cure!

// Don’t use screen time as a punishment tool

if there’s a threat of digital amputation (i.e. you’ll ban their phone, or confiscate the iPad) kids simply won’t come to their parents when they’ve stumbled on pornography.

// Have open conversations about sex and pornography

it’s much less likely to be considered as ‘forbidden fruit’ if you’re engaging in discussions with them.

// Install Internet-filtering tools on all Internet-connected devices

including the Smart TV!)– I personally use and recommend The Family Zone. These tools will help you to minimise the chances of your child accessing inappropriate content accidentally.  In The Pornography Problem Plaguing Parents Masterclass I’ll also provide some other suggestions to minimise kids’ accidentally accessing pornography.

 

 

// Speak directly

when it comes to teenagers (and sometimes even tweens) speak directly and candidly about the issue of pornography. Speaking in vague terms, or avoiding the topic altogether will not help your child. In The Pornography Problem Plaguing Parents Masterclass I’ll also give you some suggested scripts to tackle the topic if your child has seen pornography.

References:

1 https://www.pornhub.com/insights/pornhub-new-zealand

2 Pizzol D, Bertoldo A, Foresta C. Adolescents and web porn: A new era of sexuality. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health. 2016 May 1;28(2):pp. 169-73.

3 Parker, I. The New norms IPPR Survey. Opinium Research. 2014.

Gorman S., Monk-Turner E., Fish J.N. Free adult Internet websites: how prevalent are degrading acts? Gender Issues. 2010 Dec 1;27(3-4), pp.131-45.

Pizzol D, Bertoldo A, Foresta C. Adolescents and web porn: A new era of sexuality. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health. 2016 May 1;28(2):pp. 169-73.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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