Research shows that there are harms associated with early exposure to pornography, but appropriate sex and relationships education can help.
Research indicates that children and young people are accessing pornography at increasing rates, with boys aged 14-17 years being the most frequent underage consumers of pornographic material. The current senate inquiry into the effects of pornography on children comes as a growing number of parents, children, teachers, psychologists and other professionals working with children and young people voice concerns about the ease of access to pornography online, and the proliferation of increasingly violent pornographic content.
While pornography is not a new phenomenon, the volume available and the way people are accessing it have changed. For example, improvements to Internet downloading speeds and the use of handheld “smart” devices have made accessing pornography easier, faster and more anonymous than ever before. The ease of access to pornography online also contributes to the greater likelihood of children’s accidental exposure.
Effects of pornography on children and young people
Given the ethical difficulties of measuring the effects of children’s exposure to pornography, most research is retrospective and has been conducted with adult or older adolescent research participants. The available studies suggest that the effects of frequent and routine viewing of pornography and other sexualised images may:
- reinforce harmful gender stereotypes;
- contribute to young people forming unhealthy and sexist views of women and sex; and
- contribute to condoning violence against women.
There is also evidence to suggest an association between frequent viewing of online pornography and sexually coercive behaviour exhibited by young men.
Pornography consumption by young people may also normalise sexual violence and contribute to unrealistic understandings of sex and sexuality. These understandings shape social norms around sex, and may lead to young people feeling as though they should engage in the sexual behaviour frequently displayed in pornography, including violent acts.
Pornography consumption has also been associated with the practice of “sexting”, and young women have reported being coerced or feeling pressured to share naked images of themselves online. For example, a recent Australian survey of 15-19 year old girls revealed that 51% believed girls feel social pressure to share naked images of themselves online. A related issue to consider is how pornography influences young people’s self-concept and body image.
Some psychologists and other professionals have anecdotally reported links between pornography use and an increase in problematic sexual behaviour and sexual abuse among children and adolescents. This is, however, a poorly researched area and it is difficult to determine a causal relationship between pornography consumption and sexual offending among children and adolescents.
Sex and relationships education
Experts suggest that the following strategies are important to address issues regarding children and young people’s access to and use of pornography:
- It’s important to remember that children and young people are naturally curious about sexuality, and will seek out information about sex and relationships.
- Children and young people therefore need age-appropriate and quality sex and relationships education that goes beyond the mere “mechanics” of sex and reproduction.
- Children and young people need help to decipher the messages conveyed in pornography – especially in relation to gender roles – and to develop critical media skills in order to resist the sexist, and violence-supportive narratives of pornography and other sexual media.
- Parents should have open, factual and honest discussions with their children and adolescents about sex, gender, relationships, sexual consent and pornography.
- The evidence shows that there are benefits of parental open communication with children and adolescents, including adolescents feeling more positive about their bodies, being better able to make informed sexual decisions, and being more aware of what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour.
Further reading and resources
A range of resources on this topic is available for children, young people, parents, educators, and other practitioners working with families and children:
- Love and Sex in the Age of Pornography is a documentary that follows a group of young people reflecting on the influence of pornography in their lives.
- It’s Time we Talked is a community-based project that supports young people, parents, schools, government and the community sector to understand and address the influence of pornography on young people. Their resources page contains a range of valuable information and tools for parents, teachers, professionals and young people.
- Love, Sex and Relationships is a teaching resource from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. It contains activities that explore relationships, sexual consent, equity, and sexual and reproductive health.
- Reality & Risk: Pornography, young people and sexuality is a community education project that seeks to respond to the social and personal implications of increasingly pervasive and hard-core pornography and its impact on young people’s perceptions of men, women and sexuality.
- This article, written by Alina Morawska from the Parenting and Family Support Centre at the University of Queensland, describes how to talk to children about pornography.
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Morawska, A. (2015). It may be awkward but we need to talk to kids about porn. The Conversation, November 26, 2015. Retrieved from <https://theconversation.com/it-may-be-awkward-but-we-need-to-talk-to-kids-about-porn-43066>
Papadopoulos, L. (2010). Sexualisation of young people review. London: Home Office. Retrieved from <http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/10738/1/sexualisation-young-people.pdf>
Plan International and Our Watch (2016). Don’t send me that pic: Online sexual harassment of Australian girls survey. Retrieved from <https://issuu.com/planaustralia/docs/plan_our_watch_report_final/1>
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Pratt, R., & Fernandes, C. (2015). How pornography may distort risk assessment of children and adolescents who sexually harm. Children Australia, 40(3), 232-241.
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Sampson, E. (2015). APS highlights concerns on the harmful impacts of pornography. InPsych: The Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society Ltd, 37(2), 18-19. Retrieved from <https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2015/april/sampson/>
Stanley, N., Barter, C., Wood, M., Aghtaie, N., Larkins, A.L., & Överlien, C. (2016). Pornography, sexual coercion and abuse and sexting in young people’s intimate relationships: A European study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, March 2016. Retrieved from <http://jiv.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/03/04/0886260516633204.full>
Re-post from: Child Family Community Australia