Does Viewing Porn Corrupt Teens? 

Many parents have trouble discussing sex with their children, and even the most comprehensive school sex-education programs have no measurable impact on teen sex—see my previous post. Meanwhile, porn is just a few taps or clicks away from most teens 24-7 and many view it regularly. This worries porn critics to no end. 

Detractors insist that adolescents experience unwanted exposure to sexually explicit media, and that porn sexualizes young people too early, ruins them for long-term relationships, and pushes young men toward sexism and sexual violence. On the contrary, here’s what the best studies show:         

• Adolescents age twelve to fourteen generally feel disgusted by sexually explicit media, and quickly turn away from it.        

• Even when they watch porn, unwanted exposure doesn’t significantly harm them any more than unwanted exposure to cooking shows causes obesity.          

• Porn doesn’t sexualize young people “too early.” Most kids engage in childhood sex play years before they encounter porn.        

• There’s no evidence that porn ruins young people for long-term relationships. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the divorce rate peaked in 1980, years before free Internet porn became easily available. Since then it has steadily declined. In 2015, a generation after porn flooded the Internet, the divorce rate fell to a forty-year low.         

•  The well-documented association between early porn use and early virginity loss implies the former contributes to the latter. Not necessarily. Starting in childhood, some people are more sexual than others. Innate sexual precociousness may instigate both porn viewing and early virginity loss. Before Internet porn, most teens had first intercourse around age seventeen. Since porn flooded the Internet, that hasn’t changed. In fact, compared to the pre-Internet era, today’s teens are less sexually active (below).         

• The association between teen porn exposure and sex crimes is disturbing but inconsistent. Many studies show that compared with other men, sex offenders report viewing less porn.        

More reasons that teen porn exposure is no cause for alarm:              

• A Texas Tech researcher surveyed 131 college men about porn consumption and attitudes toward women. As their self-reported porn viewing increased, their sexism decreased.         

• Scientists at the University of Zagreb, Croatia, surveyed 650 young adult men about their age at first porn exposure and their subsequent sexuality. “Early exposure had no effect.”         

• Another team of University of Zagreb researchers surveyed 1,005 young-adult men about porn exposure and sexual irresponsibility. “Viewing pornography is not associated with sexual risk-taking.”          

• Swiss investigators surveyed 3,283 teen boys. “Pornography exposure, either willing or unwilling, is not associated with risky sexual behavior.”         

• Danish and Swedish studies show that while most teens turn to porn for information about the mechanics of sex, at the same time, they realize it’s a cartoon—not a how-to manual but fantasy.         

• Finally, some porn critics assert that adolescent exposure to porn coaxes young men to commit sex crimes. UCLA investigators asked pedophile and non-pedophile adolescents about their porn consumption. Compared with other teens, the sex offenders had viewed “significantly less porn.”

Since the Arrival of Internet Porn, Teens Have Become More Sexually Responsible

So some studies suggest teen porn viewing is harmful, while many others conclude it’s innocuous. When faced with dueling studies, it’s instructive to look beyond academia and explore what’s actually happening in the world. Current teen sexual behavior shows the porn bashers are mistaken. Porn has not corrupted adolescents.         

If porn spurred teen sexual irresponsibility, then since the late 1990s when porn exploded on the Internet, teens should have become more sexually active. Actually, teen sex has declined. A team led by San Diego State University researchers surveyed 26,707 Americans, some born in the 1960s and ’70s, who came of age before Internet porn, and others born in the ’80s and ’90s, who grew up in a world glutted with it. The latter reported less sex. 

In addition, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the teen birth rate peaked in 1991, years before Internet porn. Since then, it has fallen 70 percent. Abortion and emergency contraception explains some of this decline, but far from all of it. Compared with their parents and grandparents, today’s teens are also having less sex. From the CDC’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveys:

Sexual intercourse, ever 

1997: 48%

2015: 41%

Change: -7%

Sexual intercourse, previous three months

1997: 35%

2015: 30%

Change: -5%

Condom use, most recent intercourse

1997: 57%

2015: 57%

Change: none

Birth control pills prior to most recent intercourse

1997: 17%

2015: 18%

Change +1%

Alcohol or other recreational drug use immediately prior to most recent intercourse

1997: 25%

2015: 21%

Change: -4%

Teens raped

2001: 8%

2015: 7%

Change: -1%

The fact is that despite the easy accessibility of free porn on all web-connected devices, today’s teens are less sexual and increasingly sexually responsible.

Does Discussing Porn with Adolescents Encourage Them to View It?

If a friend mentions a great new restaurant, you’re likely to try it. Similarly, some parents believe that if they mention porn to their adolescent children in hopes of deterring them from watching, teens may become more likely to view it. Two studies have explored this issue:         

• Croatian scientists asked 1,053 high school students if they watched porn. Six months later they asked again. Participants reported no significant increase in viewing.         

• Using a similar approach, Dutch investigators surveyed 123 teens. “Questions about viewing pornography did not stimulate that behavior.”

There’s no need to wring hands over teen porn consumption. As that geezer rock band, The Who, sang more than 50 years ago about a previous generation of teens, “The kids are all right.”

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Reference: 

Long-term trends in teen birth rates: http://bit.ly/2uUPTS0

Decline in the divorce rate: 1980-2015: http://bit.ly/2p0EcFA

CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey—1997: http://bit.ly/2Dd16CW

CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey —2015: http://bit.ly/2mtk5y0

Hald, G.M. et al. “Does Viewing Explain Doing? Assessing the Association Between Sexually Explicit Materials and Sexual Behaviors in a Large Sample of Dutch Adolescents and Young Adults,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2013) 10:2986.

Koletic, G. et al. “Does Asking Adolescents About Pornography Make Them Use It?” A Test of the Question-Behavior Effect,” Journal of Sex Research (2019) 56:137.

Luder, M.T. et al. “Associations Between Online Pornography and Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents: Myth or Reality?” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2011) 40:1027.

Peter, J. and P.M. Valkenburg. “Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research,” Journal of Sex Research (2016) 53:509.

Peter, J. and P.M. Valkenberg, “Do Questions About Watching Internet Pornography Make People Watch Internet Pornography? A Comparison Between Adolescents and Adults,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research (2012) 24:400.

Sinkovic, M. et al. “Revisiting the Association Between Pornography Use and Risky Sexual Behaviors: The Role of Early Exposure to Pornography and Sexual Sensation Seeking,” Journal of Sex Research (2013) 50:633.

Stulhofer, A. et al. “Pornography, Sexual Socialization, and Satisfaction Among Young Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2010) 39:168.

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