Teenagers not so keen on porn

Teens are not so keen on porn, according to recent surveying of 500 18 year olds by think tank IPPR. The teens were asked for their views about porn. The responses showed thoughtfulness from the teenagers about some of the potential effects. 70 per cent thought it was potentially damaging to views of sex and relationships. 77 % of women thought they had been made to feel they should look a certain way as a result of porn. 75 per cent of women asked thought that porn put pressure on them to act a certain way, compared with 56 per cent of the men asked. The average age when accessing porn was considered typical was aged 13 to 14, for both girls and boys. Approximately 46 per cent thought sending a sexual photo was part of everyday life for teenagers now.Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 10.24.23

The issue of internet porn is a thorny one. There is little conclusive evidence on the effects of porn on child and adolescent development, probably because it would be unethical to create a randomised controlled situation where children were exposed to porn on purpose. The studies that have been done try to compare samples of teenagers or adults who have accessed different amounts of porn, and see how this is associated with sexual behaviour, self image, or even brain changes.

The trouble is that it’s really hard to draw any causal conclusions from studies like this. People who watch more porn might be more sexually promiscuous but that doesn’t mean porn makes people promiscuous, it might be that people with higher sex drives like both having sex with more people and watching porn, for example. Similarly changes in the brain associated with greater porn use might be a result of watching a lot of it, or it might be that those brain differences are there from the beginning, and simply mean people with those sorts of brains are predisposed to watching porn, maybe because the brain areas are involved in reward responses. It of course it could be a mix of both explanations.

This isn’t to say we should underplay the risks to children of being exposed to this adult material. Some experts associate the current availability of porn with increased cosmetic labiaplasty, for example, because young women feel so bad about how their vaginas look compared to those they have seen in porn. 

What of the images sent by about half of teens? Sexy selfies might seem like a bit of fun but when they go wrong and the image is used in cyber bullying, a common phenomenon, they can be deeply humiliating and upsetting. Adolescence is a time of making mistakes, partly due to negotiating new social landscapes, and partly due to teenage brain development which we know makes teenagers more likely to be impulsive and to prioritise social reinforcement in decision-making. I feel lucky to have been a teenager in a pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone era. Although I can’t imagine my teenage self ever sending a sexy photo, I’m glad other questionable judgements are recorded only in memory, not on the internet.

It’s easy to blame the tech here, but what’s really important, as always, is the way we are talking with children and young people. The way we talk about sexual and romantic relationships, the way we make sex something that they can ask about, and the way we explain any concerns we have about porn. It could be much more helpful to have a conversation about power imbalances in sexual relationships, about potential objectification, about the importance of being able to talk with sexual partners about what each of you wants, rather than shying away from spelling out what the concerns are and risking teenagers thinking that all sex is taboo to talk about with grown ups.

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