Pornography is everywhere…on the internet, in books and on display on the front covers of magazines in our supermarkets. We live in societies where children and youth, both male and female, can search for pornography with ease. As we go on with our lives, do we want to think about the frequency a child views graphic images or reads disturbing stories?
As adults, should we be concerned about children’s exposure to obscene content? Many professionals and others believe so! Dr. Michael Rich (Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Associate Professor of Society, Human Development and Health, Harvard Medical School) states that “Pornography has many different effects, but the central one is that pornography commodifies the sexual act. It turns something that is intimate with another human being into something that can be bought and sold”. (1)
Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England agrees and writes that “Children and young people are now growing up in a digital age and we need to better understand what this means for all of us. (2)
Dr Carr-Gregg, a prominent Australian psychologist states that he is concerned that pornography normalises multiple partners and unsafe sexual practices. “But the most damaging lesson of all that our children take from pornography is that sex has nothing to do with intimacy or love. Given the hundreds of studies linking TV violence to real-life violence over the past 30 years, it would be naive to believe that porn has no effect”. (10)
In addition, Dr Michael Flood, a sociologist at the University of Wollongong, believes that pornography teaches poor sexual education. There is nothing about negotiating consent, it largely neglected condom use and provides no insight into intimacy and relationships. “For me, the biggest concern is that pornography use makes it more likely that young men will condone sexual violence and perpetrate it themselves”, he said. (10)
What do we know about pornography?
With the proliferation of smart phones, Ipads, cameras and other devices coupled with the popularity of social media sites, this ‘product’ is accessible everywhere, and to everyone. Some believe pornography production, dissemination and consumption has reached ‘epidemic’ proportions and continues to grow. (3) The acceptance of pornography is at an all-time high
Pornography permeates our lives to such an extent that it is now part of main stream contemporary culture. ‘Porn’ has become a part of our language. The popular media (sit coms, dramas, music and movies) normalises pornography consumption through references to its use and how it is portrayed. For instance characters in TV shows and movies joke about porn use…Where is our teenage son? Oh, he is in his room learning about sex through watching porn sites! Laughter breaks out! (3)
Pornography has changed
Experts are in agreement that the porn of today is unquestionably more obscene, more deviant, violent and degrading then it was even a decade ago. (3)
Children and Youth are Watching Porn!
So how many children are watching pornography, and at what age? While children and youth have always been curious about sex and viewed ‘soft porn’ such as Playboy magazines, studies suggest that children are being exposed to pornography at record levels.
One national survey found that 25% of the children interviewed had mistakenly experienced exposure to pornography by simply surfing the net. Another, that 47% of school aged children received porn spam on a daily basis, and that one in five opened the email. (1)
Researchers agree that the average age of first time exposure is 8 years, down from 11 or 12 years before the age of the internet. And even younger children are accidently viewing it as parents allow them access to mobile phones, Ipads and other social devices. (3)
Author of Big Porn Inc, Melinda Tankard Reist, reports that young boys are being exposed to hard-core violent pornography before they even hold hands with, or kiss, a girl. She says 70% of boys have viewed adult content by the time they are 12 years old. By the age of 15, she states it is almost impossible to find a boy who hasn’t viewed it. There are gender differences in pornography access, even among young people. Boys access this kind of content more than girls. They also spend more time viewing it. (6) But girls are exposed also to pornography at increasingly high rates with around half having viewed pornography by age 12 and 97 percent by age 16. (4)
The importance of the need for this discussion about pornography in our societies was recently demonstrated when Ormond College (Melbourne University, Australia) put a blanket ban on their students accessing any pornography via its Wi-Fi network, saying it exploited women and presented them "primarily as sex objects who are a means to the end of male pleasure". Students pay $200 per semester to access Wi-Fi. Many objected to the ban and felt their freedom of expression had been limited as what they did in the privacy of their dorm room should be their own business. "We all agree there is an issue with the current state of mainstream porn but banning it is not the answer. It won't educate people, it is condescending and paternalistic," said one student. (5)
What do teens think of pornography?
Teens are aware that pornography is degrading and discriminatory. In one study, teens saw pornography as portraying a man’s role as dominant, even brutal, and abusive. A woman’s role was to be subordinate and sexual. They recognised the content as a distortion of reality; they didn’t like watching it, but felt pressured to view it. They felt it gave them a model to follow and how to act when involved in personal intimacy. (4)
What is the Community Response?
Community leaders, including church and police are speaking out! The Australian Christian Lobby says that "Increasingly academics, ethicists, feminists and theologians alike are rejecting the idea that porn should continue to be seen as a mainstream activity". (5)
In agreement, Chief Superintendent John Sutherland suggests that a tidal wave of graphic online pornography is to blame for the 'catastrophic sexualisation' of young people. Easy access to extreme hardcore material by any child or youth with a Smartphone is corroding their lives and destroying their innocence, he warned. Many crimes he believes are fueled by pornography, and lists a series of violent sex crimes by children. He accuses those who attempt to ‘brush’ off the risks of allowing children unrestricted access as 'either willfully ignorant or willfully stupid'. (6)
Affects on our Children
Pornography and other sexualised media affect children and youth in several ways.
1. Research shows that young men repeatedly exposed to pornography are more likely to objectify women and young women are more likely to self-objectify and tolerate sexual abuse from men. (1)
2. It leads to significant and powerful expectations of sexual experiences. What is viewed becomes ‘normal’ and a model to follow. And so leads to significant damage in ability to form healthy, sexually appropriate adult relationships (7)
4. The frequency of exposure matters, as a child becomes increasingly desensitized over time. As desensitization occurs, a child typically begins to seek a greater frequency of pornography, and a harder or more severe quality. Greater frequency and a shift to hard-core pornography are indicators that the brain has begun to seek more stimulation, which can lead to addiction. (7)
5. A review of many studies on adolescents and pornography concluded that young people who reported having visited sexually explicit websites were more likely to have a higher number of sexual partners, engage in a wider diversity of sexual practices, use alcohol or drugs in association with sexual activities and were at a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. (11)
6. While children and youth are consumers of porn, many are also producers. Research shows that 72% of sexually active youth in years 10-12 of their school years have sent sexually explicit material via a text message (sexting). A further survey found that many 13-18 year olds created explicit images or videos to be sent to a boy friend or girlfriend, over 30% admitted to sending the material to someone they have met only on line and 15% had sent it to a complete stranger. Many of these young people are unaware that sexting is a criminal offence in many countries. (12)
7. With the rise of young people consuming explicit pornography, there is a significant rise in the number of young women facing physical damage, including internal injuries, to their bodies from performing porn-inspired sex acts. Pressured by their male partners, they feel they must comply with unwanted acts demonstrated on videos (sometimes live). Experts say that girls are copying what they and their partners see and are seeking treatment from the medical professions for once not seen injuries. (13)
While it is important to be aware of the extent of exposure of this form of abuse and its dangers, it is also important to help parents, doctors, schools and others to identify and provide strategies to combat its affects.
1. Inform and instruct children early: Sadly, with such easy access to pornography, it is vitally important for parents, carers and others to have informative and frequent discussions with children in their care. (1) Parents need to rewrite the discussions they are having with their children about sex due to the proliferation of pornography. (12) A strong and positive relationship developed early will be a solid foundation for positive communication that needs to be continued throughout their childhood. It is critically important that children learn from the trusted adults in their lives, in an open and age-appropriate manner, the healthy values and behaviours around sex and intimacy. These at times difficult conversations require knowledge, tact, a willingness to listen and non-judgmental approach. (1)
According to child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, not enough parents raise issues around internet porn with their children. “I’m not sure they are having the conversations about pornography”, he said. (10)
2. Appropriate Response: Of course our response will depend on many factors, such as the relationship with the child, their age, our own life experiences, culture and religious beliefs, parenting skills etc. What are the facts surrounding the exposure? If a child is found with pornography, or discloses its use, demonstrating a shocked, harsh, or impulsive interrogation is not helpful in addressing the problem. We risk the danger of damaging our existing relationship and making them more curious and/or secretive. (8)
Counsellors suggest to begin there are several important questions to ask. These include: how did the child source the pornography (by accident, intentionally, or coached by another child or adult?) Was it the child’s first exposure? If not, how frequently is it viewed? (2) What types was viewed? (heterosexual, homosexual, body parts, violence, child pornography or bestiality?) (7)
3. Seek professional advice and support: While it is vital that children and adolescents do not feel blamed or ashamed when discovered that they have viewed pornography, or acted out sexually what they have viewed, a therapeutic intervention may be important to explore the extent of the problem, its affects and consequences. Many counselors are now skilled in working with children and youth, including those who have an addiction. (7)
4. Preventing exposure: There is no ‘magic’ answer in today’s world to totally prevent a child’s exposure to pornography, but there are several strategies to limit the possibility! These include some guidelines for children on the type of social media devices they can use, when and how. E.g. install specialised software to home computers, phones and other devices, constant adult supervision while the child is surfing the net, place the computer in a common space (not the child’s bedroom), limit the time on the computer (e.g. only when an adult is present) and have guidelines for what purposes (eg. homework). (8)
5. Keep current with new technology and trends. Keep knowledge up to date. E.g. new technology, the use of social devices such as Ipads and smart phones etc. Understand Facebook, Twitter and the latest social media. Understand the latest teen trends (e.g. sexting). (1)
6. Protecting other children: When a family member is addicted to pornography, they may present a risk to others. (7) Research shows that when a minor views pornography, he or she may act out the images seen onscreen. It could occur with a younger sibling, children in the neighbourhood or friends. A recent study in the UK found that 20% of sexual offense cases involving minors included abuse of a family member. In another third of the cases, a friend of the family was victimized. A counsellor or therapist can assist with a risk evaluation. (3)
7. Be aware! Pedophiles are stealing more and more photos of children, from babies to teenagers, who have been posted on social media by their parents and others and reposting them on sex websites. Investigations of images of children on pedophile and pornographic websites have rocketed to 5090, a rise of 330% in two years. Photos were removed in 3770 cases, according to the first major report from the Office of Children’s eSafety Commissioner (Australia). Of the 25,000 children images investigated by the eSafety Hotline in 2014/5, 91% were females. Most families or teenagers are usually unaware their images have been stolen. (9)
Our children and youth have always had to navigate the world: coping with bullying, social awkwardness, body image issues and school pressures. However, the prevalence of online pornography and the ease of seeing, producing and sending it presents us all with a new set of challenges, unknown to previous generations of adults. (12)
While there is often an outcry against any form of censorship (we should be able to watch what we want!), it is evident from research that our children’s welfare is at stake. (8) Pamphlets issued by governments, training for parents and teachers, informative websites, telephone help lines, campaigns to limited the sexualisation of children in advertising, are all helpful to combat the affects of pornography. But are they enough?
When do we have that important conversation?
2.http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/news/children%E2%80%99s-commissioner-responds-police-record-child-sexting-case- 0. 3rd September 2015
Herald Sun, 17th September 2015
Greenwood, Chris., Daily Mail, 16th September 2015
Bryan, Amanda, 21st May 2012, Health risks for kids online
Walker, Liz., www.thekidsareallright.com.au/2012/parenting/sex-talk-with-teens=must-address-pornography, 23rd May 2012
Panahi, R., Herald Sun, 9th June 2014
Roper, Caitlin, Internet pornography warping teens attitudes towards women and sex, 4th June 2015