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Do teenagers even use Pornhub, and other questions about children and porn

We’ve largely moved beyond moral panics about teens’ consumption of books, television and movies, but worries about the effects of online pornography remain. But are we concerned about the wrong things?

Throughout history, the regulation of children’s access to violent and sexualised media has been a startlingly consistent social concern. Over the course of the 20th century, research regularly focused on the harmful effects that newspapers, comic books, radio, film, and television might have on children. Noticeably, such research has tended not only to concentrate specifically on the impact of new forms of media on children, but also whether children can discern between fiction and reality, and whether new media can negatively effect their developing morality. Over and over, our focus on avoiding moral corruption meant we missed chances to engage with young people about how they make sense of their own developing sexualities .

Most recently, our collective attention has seemingly become fixed on how the internet impacts young people, predominantly via the manifold risks posed by both online gaming and pornography. The latest example is Department of Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin’s suggestion that young people are being “bombarded” with easily accessible pornography. In response, she has voiced her support for a law here similar to the UK’s proposed mandatory age verification for pornographic websites – a proposal that has met with significant opposition from those with concerns about internet freedoms and data harvesting.

In discussing such a system of age verification, it is crucial that we move beyond the media effects theories highlighted above. Research into the supposed harms of novels and radio broadcasting is now so outdated it seems quaint; studies of the possible risks to children posed by network television and films have now also fallen out of favour. But that doesn’t mean these studies can’t be instructive. Revisiting these obsolescent understandings of media usage is an invitation to move beyond simple explanations, to instead dig into the heart of the issue: what is it about children’s exposure to ‘adult’ content that generates such a remarkable historical pattern of concern?

First, let’s define our terms. What is pornography? Beyond ‘I know it when I see it’, a consideration of such a seemingly simple question generates further, much more difficult questions. What, for example, is the difference, in terms of harm to teenagers, between pornography and contemporary portrayals of sex and violence in ‘mainstream’ media? This can be a tricky distinction, as evidenced by the conversation around the Office of Film and Literature Classification’s (OFLC) recent classification of the second season of popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, a show aimed at teenagers which contains graphic depictions of rape and suicide. Or consider a quote taken from research by the OFLC in which an older teenage boy describes being “disturbed” at being exposed to a Game of Thrones episode his mother was watching, leading him to avoid speaking to her for a week.

Then there’s the relationship between sex and violence on screen. Regardless of what proportion of ‘pornography’ is considered violent, a critical question that is seldom asked is how popular is such content anyway? We often hear that pornography is becoming more violent, but research to prove this claim is surprisingly inadequate. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that some pornography can be disturbing, and can be seen by young people if access remains unrestricted. But are young people seeking such content on purpose or are they being exposed to it accidentally? Are they being shown it by others intentionally? And how do all of these scenarios play out? Young men are often expected to seek out pornography as a normative part of their sexual maturation. The way a teenage boy makes sense of pornography as part of a bonding ritual with friends might be quite different to how he processes it on his own. It is curious that we often fail to grasp the glaring contradiction between protecting teenagers from pornography on one hand and nostalgically lauding it as an integral part of burgeoning sexuality on the other.

Finally, it is worth considering whether age verification would actually work – and I don’t just mean the logistics of rolling out such a system. It’s important to reiterate the central concern here: youth exposure to sex and violence in media. Does an age verification system even addresses the source of the problem? In other words, do teenagers even use PornHub? Consider the prevalence of ostensibly non-pornographic message boards like Reddit or Tumblr, on which pornography is regularly posted, or the preponderance of pornographic content accessible via Twitter. Consider the increasing prevalence of sexual content on live streaming platforms (like gaming platform Twitch), and the possibilities of user generated pornography, not to mention so-called ‘revenge porn’. And of course there are always chatrooms, popups on torrent and gaming sites, camming sites, messaging services, the dark web, and on and on it goes forever.

In the face of all of these alternative avenues through which to access pornography, it might be tempting to give up. But to do so ignores the most crucial protective factor for young people: engaging with them, listening to their voices, and responding to their needs. Previous research by the OFLC says that “a consistent theme was that teens feel that they lack information and support in this area.” Similarly, research in the United Kingdom (the vanguard for age restrictions on pornography) suggests that “most young people thought pornography was a poor model for consent or safe sex and wanted better sex education, covering the impact of pornography”. Teenagers are critical consumers of new forms of media, and yet we continue to condescend to them.

That’s why I share Chief Censor David Shanks’ excitement about the research being undertaken by his office into teenagers’ experience of online pornography. Such research not only listens to the voices of young people, but also works to address glaring gaps in both academic and public knowledge about pornography (if only we were as interested in adults’ pornography viewing eh?). If we move beyond the old ‘media effects’ paradigm, we can start harnessing the energy generated by the current pornography debate to reflect on why the previous styles of media research are now largely redundant: they failed to meaningfully engage with how violent and sexual media operates within popular culture more broadly, and the diverse ways that pornography can be made sense of by its viewership.

Should we legislate for an age limit for pornography? I’d suggest we take a ‘wait and see’ approach. As yet, the lack of rigorous local research on teenagers’ (or anyone’s) pornography consumption habits – what those who consume it are actually viewing, how they are viewing it, and how they feel about their viewing – suggests caution. Otherwise, we risk rushing towards unwarranted interventions, while expounding the same antiquated concerns about new forms of media and their impact on teenagers.

Kris Taylor is a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Auckland, focusing on pornography viewership and pornography addiction.


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