Is pornography dangerous for young people?

According to recent European research, 93% of 9-16 year old users go online at least weekly and 60% go online everyday or almost every day. 14% of young people have experienced sexual content online; 23% have encountered sexual content online or offline[306].

There has been considerable interest in the kinds of effects pornography might have on children[307]. There are also concerns regarding young people’s overall use of online technologies[308], based on the observation that children appear to be learning how to use the internet even more quickly and at a younger age[309]. Concerns about pornography focus on whether it influences young people, whether they might get addicted to it, and how they may be harmed[310]. In public debates about pornography, the focus is often on the ‘exposure’ of young people to sexual media by accident, because of popups, inadequate methods of searching, or weak safety measures[311]. But older children also seek out sexual media online and engaging with these becomes part of the way they work out their understandings of sex and sexuality[312].

Studies suggest that engagement with online pornography is less prevalent than many people think. The majority takes place in the older age groups. In the UK research suggests that 21% of 9-11 year olds who use the internet at least once a week have come into contact with porn, along with 58% of 12-15 year olds, 76% of 16-17 year olds and 80% of 18-19 year olds[313].

The extent and ease with which the term ‘risk’ is used in policy, research and practice in relation to young people’s encounters with pornography would suggest its meaning is obvious. But little work has been carried out on the nature of young people’s experiences and their understanding of pornography and its place in their lives. What research exists suggests that young people seek out sexual material out for a variety of reasons: curiosity, entertainment, facilitating masturbation, relieving boredom, increasing sexual knowledge, skills and confidence, to be transgressive, for the ‘yuck’ factor, and to develop opinions and capabilities[314].

A recent UK Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) on the effects of pornography states that it affects children and young people’s sexual beliefs and is linked to children and young peoples’ engagement in risky behaviours[315]. However this review relies heavily on studies that have been criticized, and on a tradition of research that suggests a correlation between young people’s consumption of pornography and a series of ‘negative’ effects around sexual permissiveness. This tradition is underpinned by a moralistic view of sex that suggests that the acceptance of premarital sex, casual sex, and being sexually experimental is a problem[316], despite the fact that none of these activities are illegal or necessarily undesirable.

One particular claim highlighted in the REA is that young people who consume pornography have higher levels of ‘notions of women as sex objects’. It is important to note that studies claiming this included questions such as ‘sexually active girls are more attractive partners’. Translating this as a form of sexual objectification is problematic. Similarly, the correlations between adolescents who use sexually explicit material and having ‘sexual preoccupancy’ or ‘sexual uncertainty’ is framed as undesirable[317]. However, there is nothing inherently bad about having a strong engagement with sexual issues, or not being sure about one’s sexuality or preferences. These studies present sexual permissiveness, sexual experimentation (particularly anal sex), and even an interest in sex as ‘negative’. Although this makes sense within a psychological tradition which often presents monogamous, relationship-oriented sex as the only ‘mature’ form of sexual practice, such value judgements have been challenged by many critical health researchers.

Several researchers have found a set of correlations for young people among consuming pornography and smoking, drinking, arson, lying, cheating and poorer psychosocial adjustment. Several of these studies focus on pornography as a key issue, which may give the impression that pornography is ‘causing’ these behaviours. But none of the studies explicitly make this claim. Indeed, it would be difficult to see how such a claim could be justified – no mechanism has been suggested by which consuming pornography would lead people to start smoking, commit arson or lie to people. However it is possible to see an explanation for this constellation of behaviours by understanding the consumption of pornography as a rebellious act. We know that some teachers and other authority figures see the consumption of pornography as a conduct problem. From this perspective it would not be surprising if young people who exhibit a range of rebellious behaviours would also engage in the consumption of pornography, at least in part as a sign of rebellion.

None of the studies discussed in the REA prove causality. As correlation studies they demonstrate that young people who consume pornography are also more likely to have approving attitudes about casual and extramarital sex, to experiment sexually, and to have an interest in sex. It is possible therefore that an interest in sex precedes the consumption of pornography, or that a third variable – such as sexual adventurousness – predicts both an interest in pornography and an interest in sex.

Although all researchers are careful to point out that they cannot prove causality, the language they use in presenting their results commonly assumes it. Therefore, despite this explicit acknowledgement, there is often an assumption in the reports that it is pornography that is causing the other sexual behaviours. This perhaps explains why, despite the explicit disavowals of the researchers about proving causality, many read the articles as though they prove causality.

Is sexting dangerous?

306. Livingstone, S (2011). Key Findings, EU Kids Online, http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/EU%20Kids%20II%20(2009-11)/EUKidsExecSummary/IrelandExecSum.pdf; Livingstone, S. Haddon, L., Görizig, A.
& Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risk and Safety on the internet: The perspective of European children. Full findings. EU Kids Online http://www.eukidsgreece.gr/158/; Hasebrink, U., Görzig, A., Haddon, L., Kalmus, V. & Livingstone, S. (2011). In-depth analyses from the EU Kids Online survey of 9-to-16-year-olds and their parents in 25 European countries. EU Kids Online, http://www.eukidsonline.net.
307. Wang, L., Luo, J., Luo, J., Gao, W. & Kong, J. (2012). The effect of Internet use on adolescents’ lifestyles: A national survey. Computers in Human Behaviour, 28(6), 2007-2013; Shen, C.-X., Liu, R. & Wang, D. (2012). Why are children attracted to the internet? The role of need satisfaction perceived online and perceived in daily real life. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(1), 185-192.
308. Buckingham, D. & Willett, R. (Eds.) (2006). Digital Generations: Children, Young People and New Media. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
309. Livingstone, S. Haddon, L., Görizig, A. & Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risk and Safety on the internet: The perspective of European children. Full findings. EU Kids Online. http://www.eukidsgreece.gr/158/;
310. Tsaliki, L. (2011). Playing with porn: Greek children’s explorations in pornography. Sex and Education, 11(3): 293-302; Smith, C. & Attwood, F. (2011). Lamenting sexualization: research, rhetoric and the story of young people’s ‘sexualization’ in the UK Home Office review. Sex Education, 11(3), 327-337; McKee, A. (2010) Does pornography harm young people? Australian Journal of Communication, 37(1), 17-36; Livingstone, S. & Haddon, L. (Eds.) (2009). Kids Online: Opportunities and risks for children. Bristol: The Policy Press.
311. Livingstone, S. & Haddon, L. (2009). EU Kids Online: Final report. LSE, London, http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/research/EUKidsOnline/EU%20Kids%20I%20(2006-9)/EU%20Kids%20Online%20I%20Reports/EUKidsOnlineFinalReport.pdf
312. Bale, C. (2011). Raunch or romance? Framing and interpreting the relationship between sexualized culture and young people’s sexual health. Sex Education,11(3): 303-13.
313. Livingstone, S. & M. Bober (2005). UK Children Go Online: Final report of key project findings, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/395/1/UKCGOsurveyreport.pdf; See Rovolis, A. & Tsaliki, L. (2012), Pornography in Livingstone, S., Haddon, L. & Goriz, A. (Eds.) Children, risk and safety online: Research and policy challenges in comparative perspective. Policy Press: London, 165-176 for a critical discussion of the findings.
314. Bale, C. (2011). Raunch or romance? Framing and interpreting the relationship between sexualized culture and young people’s sexual health. Sex Education, 11(3): 303-13; Bale, C. (2012). Exploring the relationship between sexualized media, young people and sexual health. A Qualitative Study, PhD Thesis, Sheffield: University of Sheffield; Buckingham, D. & Bragg, S. (2004). Young People, Sex and the Media: The facts of life? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Tsaliki, L. (2011). Playing with porn: Greek children’s explorations in pornography. Sex Education, 11(3), 293-302; Chronaki, D. (forthcoming). Young People’s accounts of experiences with sexual content, PhD thesis, Loughborough: Loughborough University.
315. Horvath, M., A H, Alys, L., Massey, K., Pina, A., Scally, M. & Adler, J. R. (2013). Basically … porn is everywhere. A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effect that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
316. Haagstrom-Nordin, E., Sandberg, J., Hanson, U. & Tyden, T. (2006). ‘It’s everywhere!’: young Swedish people’s thoughts and reflections on pornography. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 20(4), 386-393.
317. See for example, Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P.M. (2007). Adolescents’ exposure to a sexualized media environment and their notions of women as sex objects. Sex Roles, 56, 381-395; Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P.M. (2008). Adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit internet material and sexual preoccupancy: a three-wave panel study. Media Psychology, 11(2), 207-234.

Is sexting dangerous?

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