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Your teen is probably watching porn. Does that matter?

The thought of their teenage kids watching porn is an uncomfortable one for many parents. But as teenager expert Louisa Woods explains, it’s probably not a cause for alarm.

If you think your teen has never or is never going to access porn, you must be living under a rock and keeping them captive with you. Even then, it’s hard to find a rock lacking wifi or at the very least patchy phone service. Porn is available 24/7, free of charge, no restrictions, and that isn’t going to change. Gone are the days of sidling nonchalantly into the adult section of the local video store to grab a VHS copy of Poolside Orgy IV. That pile of dog-eared magazines under the bed in your mate’s room is now a relic of the distant past. No longer must one experience the horror of realising the only place your cousin could have enjoyed Good Will Humping on DVD is from the comfort of the couch in the family living area.

While once upon a time getting hold of any sort of porn involved money, opportunity, and the guts to face up to the person at the check-out – always either a slightly disapproving or quietly amused person who knew precisely what you were off home to do – nowadays all it takes is an internet search. In fact, the search isn’t a prerequisite – internet pop-ups and spam emails are enough to get porn into your online world even if you haven’t gone looking for it. This level of accessibility, with the added benefits of affordability and anonymity, make checking out porn pretty irresistible to teens, and viewing it regularly not only possible, but the norm.

A recent Australian study found that of the nearly 1000 young people surveyed, all of the males had viewed porn, and 85% of them were accessing it on at least a weekly basis. And, while pornography use is usually associated with young men, it’s not all about the boys: a significant number of young women are accessing porn for their own pleasure, with nearly 20% of female respondents watching solo at least once a week.

It’s long been acknowledged that sexual curiosity is a hallmark of adolescence, and now it’s increasingly common for porn to be seen as an acceptable way to feed that curiosity. In fact, the research mentioned above, along with other studies, indicate the majority of young people are exploring porn before they’re exploring other people. In the first study, the average age for young men to be exposed to sexually explicit material was 13, and 57% of all respondents reported they’d watched porn prior to any sexual contact in real life.

It’s no wonder society in general and parents in particular have concerns about the impact of porn on our young people. It’s everywhere, it’s easy to get, and because people are usually viewing it before they have any personal experience with sex, it’s reasonable to assume porn will influence their sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, potentially in negative ways.

But you know what they say about assumption…

How much of our concern about the impact of porn comes from a general sense of disapproval and distaste, and how much comes from any actual risks attached to teens’ exposure to pornographic material?

I think it’s a bit of both.

Much research shows exposure to sexually explicit material, particularly from a young age, is correlated with a number of problematic attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs. For young people of all genders and sexualities there are links between regular engagement with porn and earlier sexual debut, an increased likelihood to hold more permissive attitudes towards sexual activity, less progressive attitudes to gender roles, an increase in sexual preoccupancy, lower sexual satisfaction with partners, and an escalation in body surveillance. All excellent reasons to be supporting our young people to make good decisions when it comes to viewing pornographic content.

But hang on. Some other studies show no correlation between accessing porn and any of the things on the rather sobering list above. Some studies show a correlation, but only for young people with pre-existing risk factors. Some indicate a link between antisocial and delinquent behaviours and frequent use of pornography, but can’t explain which comes first, the porn or the delinquency.

Correlation is not the same as causation.

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It is likely that certain individuals have protective factors – close family relationships, the intellectual capacity to be critical consumers of media, high life satisfaction, for example – that make them less likely to be heavily influenced by watching sexually explicit materials, whereas other young people do not share those factors but rather have certain elements in their background or personality that make them vulnerable.

It’s highly unlikely that access to pornography would be the single contributor to sexual expression, no matter what that expression may be.

The lack of conclusive evidence about how and why porn impacts our young people indicates a real need for further research, and also the possibility that we are getting more worried about their access to porn than we need to be. The important thing is to be willing to have the difficult conversations so our teens aren’t watching with their eyes wide shut. We need to equip our young people with the skills and values that allow them to make good decisions about their viewing habits and draw distinctions between what they see on their screen and what sex is and should be like in real life.

In fact, there may even be some educational benefits to watching porn.

While ‘just doing some research for health class’ may be a useful cover story, it’s also sometimes not far from the truth. Porn can help young people to decide on their own sexual boundaries, help to clarify some of the technical aspects of sex, and assist in clarifying their own sexual identity. This may be especially true for adolescents who do not identify as heterosexual, with a lack mainstream media depicting queer culture and sexual behaviour. Many adolescents can be (and are) critical of the porn they see and are selective about the behaviour they emulate in their own sexual relationships, so porn can be a source of inspiration without necessarily being problematic.

Let us not panic, parents of teenagers. Not unless it’s necessary – and no doubt there will be some occasions when it is. Instead of panicking, let’s be vigilant and broach the subject of their porn-watching habits, even when the conversation might be somewhat awkward.

One of those occasions is if your teen is watching porn that incorporates violence. Research tends to agree that when a person is viewing violent, dehumanising pornographic content it increases the likelihood of that person perpetrating sexual violence themselves. But parents of well adjusted adolescents should take heart: for the majority of young people, exposure to non-violent sexually explicit material does not lead to an increase in sexually aggressive behaviour. If your kid’s watching consenting adults getting it on in a non-violent, mutually enjoyable manner, they’re probably safe.

Objectionable content of any sort is cause for concern not only for the wellbeing of your child but because it’s almost always exploitative of the people involved on screen. Anything with children, anything that plays out a rape scene or non-consensual sexual contact, anything with animals; you get the drift. Porn can be exploitative in terms of its portrayal of women, even in the most tame and mainstream stuff. Women are often presented as submissive (in a way that isn’t part of a consensual BDSM sexual expression), there is little communication about consent or safe sexual practices, and much of the sexual activity is focused on men’s pleasure rather than women’s. If you really want to influence your teen to watch porn that’s not hurting anybody, direct them to ethical porn sites where the focus is on mutually enjoyable sex between consenting adults.

Another worrisome situation is when porn becomes a person’s primary source of entertainment. Frequent use of porn has been linked to a number of concerning behaviours and attitudes: sexual preoccupation, a move from relatively tame material to the more extreme, an increased belief the films they are viewing are realistic portrayals of real sexual encounters, and the development of the attitude that sex is only casual and penetrative. Using porn often may also indicate a person is lacking real human connection, is low in self confidence, or is isolated and lonely. If your teen is only emerging from their room to rehydrate or replenish their supply of tissues, it’s time to stage an intervention to see how you can better support them.

The fact that your teen is enjoying exploring their sexuality through the medium of porn is not necessarily the end of the world. Common sense applies: if their viewing habits are restricting them from taking part in other activities, if they’re saying or doing things that indicate a lack of respect for concepts of consent, if their browsing history includes violent porn or other objectionable content, if they’re sharing pornographic material with other people (especially if it’s unsolicited) – then they likely need some support, and that’s your job.

My general rule of thumb is to leave people be unless they’re doing something harmful, or potentially harmful, to themselves or others. Until then, knock before entering and keep the wifi account on unlimited.

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor, currently filling her days looking after her own three children, writing a bit, singing a bit, and reading as much as she can.

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