How Does Internet Porn Affect Teens? We Don't Know, Because We Don't Ask Them.

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May 31 2013 10:40 AM

How Does Internet Porn Affect Teens? New Study Says: We Have No Idea!

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This boy may not be doomed.

Photo by ASchindl/Shutterstock

How has the ubiquity of online porn affected the sexual development of children and teens? The scientific consensus is: We have no idea.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

A new comprehensive report from Middlesex University London (undertaken on behalf of England’s Children’s Commissioner) is titled “Basically … Porn Is Everywhere,” but clear insights into the effects of that material are nowhere to be found. Researchers sifted through hundreds of studies from around the world that have attempted to draw conclusions about young people’s relationships to online porn. Results were inconclusive. Most of these studies don’t agree on what pornography is. They don’t agree on what age “young people” are. They can’t confirm how often these young people (whoever they are) actually watch porn (whatever that is).

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Despite widespread fear about the increasingly deranged version of human sexuality depicted by online porn, “it is unclear whether pornography is more extreme and violent today than in the past.” (For what it’s worth: One study found that while bestiality is easier to find online, depictions of rape are more a VHS and DVD thing.) And when it comes to pornography use among children and teens who then go on to engage in risky sexual behaviors or even become sex offenders, “causal relationships cannot be established.” In fact, the total lack of insight into the much-feared cause-and-effect relationship between porn use and sexual abuse caused the study’s authors to question whether it’s even “possible to conduct research into causality.” If not, they wrote, “perhaps it is time to ask different questions.”

Perhaps it’s even time to start asking questions of actual young people. One of the major limitations of the existing research on the topic is that “young people’s feelings towards and perceptions of pornography have been largely untapped,” the researchers wrote. At this point, “we do not yet have a clear picture of how young people themselves feel about pornography and pornographic materials, and what it is that they perceive when watching these materials.”

Some researchers have at least looked far enough into the issue to suggest that “we do not know how children feel about pornography because of a skewed / negative / moralistic viewpoint when asking them questions about their use and access to it.” One pervasive bias is the tendency to reflexively view today’s plugged-in porn as inherently more dangerous than the kind favored by previous generations, who came of age in the time of pornographic VHS tapes, magazines, or lewd cave drawings. “What seems apparent,” the researchers write, “is that our concerns regarding children and young people’s access to unsuitable material are not new and are not due to the advent of the internet.”

Incidentally, when adults do talk to young people about porn, some teenagers say that adults’ inability to talk frankly about sex is what’s driving them to the material in the first place. The report found that “there is some emerging evidence indicating that young people are dissatisfied with the sex education they are receiving and that they are increasingly drawing on pornography, expecting it to educate and give information regarding sexual practices and norms.” Porn shouldn’t pass for sex education, and speculative arguments about porn that rely on what the researchers call a “limited evidence base” shouldn’t pass for the truth. And yet it still does: Even when reporting on the findings of this highly nuanced study, the Independent reverted to the same old (unsupported) script: “Easy access to online pornography encourages teenage boys to see girls as sex objects and to engage in risky sexual behaviour, according to a major study.”

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