Impacts on Young People

They email you something being like ‘oh, um, like, uh, check this out, it’s really cool’ or something and you click it and it goes to like a whole different thing that’s really disturbing or something… First I click away and then, if it’s really serious I tell my parents, and if not then I just ignore it.” (Girl, Toronto, 11-12.) [1]

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. At the same time as pornography has become widely available online, for instance, the rate of teen pregnancies has actually dropped by more than a third in Canada.[2] Most of the effects that can be stated with confidence – such as a lower rate of condom use among men who watched porn [3] – are also true of exposure to sexualized media in general. [4] 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. One study in the Netherlands found that “pornography for the general user might not add to, for example, attitudes of violence against women… But for a small group of people, pornography seemed to increase the likelihood that these attitudes are formed or developed and also of increased sexual aggression.” [5]

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 non-violent 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.[6] What may be more significant than any effects pornography or sexualized material may have on young people’s behaviour are their effects on attitudes: for example, teens who are more often exposed to sexually explicit material online are more likely to see women as sex objects.[7] Blake Spence, co-creator of the Calgary-based WiseGuyz program, says that “The script about what sexual relationships should be has been written for young men – that they have to be the aggressors and that it’s about their pleasure, not necessarily their female partner’s… They need a lens to understand that those messages can be harmful, and that they’re actually not realistic.” [8] Many young people themselves believe that pornography can affect their attitudes: according to a study by the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 28 percent of youth believe that it affects how young people behave in a relationship and 32 percent believe that it “sometimes” affects how young people interact with their romantic partners. [89]


[1] Steeves, Valerie. (2012) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents About Life Online. MediaSmarts: Ottawa.
[2] Bielski, Zosia. “Canada’s teen birth and abortion rate drops by 39.6 percent.” The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2012.
[3] Luder, Marie-Therese et al. “Associations between online pornography and sexual behavior among adolescents: Myth or Reality?” Archives of Sexual Behavior 40 (5) pg 1027-1035
[4] Leung, Wendy. “Porn’s negative effect on teen sexuality exaggerated, study says.” The Globe and Mail, April 25, 2013.
[5] Duquet F., Quéniart A. Perceptions et pratiques de jeunes du secondaire face à l’hypersexualisation et à la sexualisation précoce, November 2, 2009.
[6] Hough, Andrew. “Teenagers can be corrupted by Hollywood sex scenes.” The Telegraph, July 18, 2012.
[7] Jochen Peter & Patti M. Valkenburg. Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Internet Material and Notions of Women as Sex Objects: Assessing Causality and Underlying Processes. Journal of Communication 59 (2009) 407–433.
[8] Bielski, Zosia. “In the age of Internet porn, teaching boys to be good men.” The Globe and Mail, April 21, 2012.
[9] Peacock, Louisa and Emma Barnett. “NSPCC: Girls think they have to act like porn stars to be liked by boys.” The Telegraph, September 3, 2013.