Pornography - Overview

One of the biggest concerns voiced by parents of young Internet users is the easy access to pornography that the Web provides. There are millions of porn sites online, making hardcore sexual images that were once very difficult to obtain, now just a click away. And although many pornographic sites demand credit cards for full access, there are lots of free sites and sneak peeks available online.

Trying to control porn in a global medium like the Internet is difficult at best. Most Internet pornography, while offensive and distasteful to many users, is not illegal. As well, countries have different cultural standards and legislation regarding sexual material, and content that is banned in one jurisdiction may be easily accessible on servers in another.

To contextualize pornography, we have to recognize that today’s youth live in a highly sexualized media culture where the lines between pornography and popular entertainment have become increasingly blurred. As a 13-year-old boy from Toronto told MediaSmarts in a focus group “We’re surrounded by porn wherever we go. It’s everywhere, in the movies we watch, the magazines we read, the music videos we see.” [1]

Young people are often left to their own devices to choose what is and isn’t right for them. This is especially true online: kids say that on the Internet, they are exposed to material all the time that they must choose to reject. It isn’t as if they have to ‘sneak a peek’ at a rare find of pornography, rather, they’re constantly having to fend off material that they want to avoid. [2]

As a result, kids say that efforts should be made to teach them – and particularly young children – decision-making skills that will help them make good choices and avoid inappropriate material online. This is where parents and teachers play an important role.

Teens are more prolific and diverse Internet users than younger kids and they are less likely to be supervised, which means they have more opportunities to encounter this sort of content through their online activities. Adolescents are also naturally curious about sexuality and the Internet provides a convenient and private way to get answers to their questions.

It should come as no surprise that adolescent boys seek out pornographic Web sites in high numbers. What is raising eyebrows is that adolescent girls are doing the same: according to a 2007 Alberta study, three-quarters of all 13- and 14-year olds had viewed sexually explicit material on the Internet or other media sources. A third of boys said they had viewed pornographic videos “too many times to count.” The same survey revealed that 70 per cent of girls had viewed sexually explicit material at least once. [3]

Impacts on young people

We know that young people are accessing explicit content online. We know less about how this exposure is impacting their attitudes and behaviours. If kids are finding good and accurate information about sexual health or healthy relationships that’s a positive thing, but if the bulk of their exposure is to pornography, then they may be receiving distorted – or even violent and deviant – messages about relationships and sexual behaviour.

Numerous concerns relating to young people’s exposure to explicit sexual depictions have been raised by health professionals and others. These include becoming sexually active at earlier ages, experiencing increased violence or abuse in sexual relations, increased acceptance of sexual stereotypes and increased obsession with body image. These are legitimate concerns, but they do not necessarily apply to all youth. What is emerging in the research is that some young people are more vulnerable than others for a variety of reasons that may include interpersonal victimization, mental health issues, and patterns of risk-taking behaviour.

There are also questions surrounding teens who frequently seek out violent x-rated material: one study noted an almost 6-fold increase in self-reported sexually aggressive behaviour by youth who did this (as opposed to exposure to nonviolent x-rated material, which was not found to be statistically significant). However, literature review on studies on youth and violent x-rated material found that evidence for this is inconsistent. [4]

As can be seen by these examples, there is no consensus among researchers about the impact of pornography on viewers, One explanation offered by a  Université de Québec à Montréal study, is that rather than pornography influencing their attitudes, young adults  adapt the content to match their personal vision on sexuality – for instance they will fast forward the scenes they find shocking or disgusting. [5]

[1] Young Canadians in a Wired World, Focus Groups, MediaSmarts, 2003.
[2] Ibid.
[3] One In Three Boys Heavy Porn Users, Study Shows, Science Daily, February 25, 2007.
[4] Duquet F., Quéniart A. Perceptions et pratiques de jeunes du secondaire face à l’hypersexualisation et à la sexualisation précoce, November 2, 2009.
[5] Larry Magid. “So Your Kid is Looking at Porn. Now What?”, Saturday, December 17, 2011.