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Does Porn Hurt Kids?

First Published Mar 29 2014 06:34PM      Last Updated Mar 29 2014 06:34 pm

Starting late last year, Internet service providers in Britain made "family-friendly filters," which block X-rated websites, the default for customers. Now any account holder who wants to view adult material needs to actively opt in - effectively raising a hand to say, "Bring on the naughty."

The initiative, which was conceived and very publicly promoted by the government, is intended to prevent what Prime Minister David Cameron called the corrosion of childhood, which, he argued in a speech last year, happens when kids are exposed to pornography at a young age. In the same speech, he seemed to toss teenagers into the group in need of protection, referring to "young people who think it’s normal to send pornographic material as a prelude to dating."



Last week, more alarms about teens and online pornography were sounded when the Authority for Television on Demand in Britain called for legislation that would prevent credit- and debit-card operators from processing payments to X-rated websites that didn’t have age checks in place. The group cited research that found that 112,000 boys between ages 12 and 17 had visited a single adult site in one month alone.

Nobody argues that children should have access to adult sites, but when it comes to teens the topic starts to get murky. It turns out that the research suggesting that teenagers and pornography are a hazardous mix is far from definitive. In fact, many of the most comprehensive reports on this subject come to conclusions that amount to "we can’t say for sure" shrugs. One of the most recent is surely known to Cameron because it was produced by the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England. In May, the commissioner released a report titled "Basically ... porn is everywhere," which examined 276 research papers on teenagers and pornography.

After sifting through those papers, the report found a link between exposure to pornography and engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. Most important, "causal relationships" between pornography and risky behavior "could not be established," the report concluded. Given the ease with which teenagers can find Internet pornography, it’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has. So blaming X-rated images for risky behavior may be like concluding that cars are a leading cause of arson, because so many arsonists drive.

American scholars have come to nearly identical nonconclusions.

"By the end we looked at 40 to 50 studies," said Eric Owens, an assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and co-author of "The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research," published in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. "And it became, ‘OK, this one tells us A, this one tells us B.’ To some degree we threw up our hands and said, there is no conclusion to be drawn here."

The absence of definitive answers in this realm seems bizarre, at least initially. An entire generation has grown up with easy access to images and films that once required a photo ID or, for the youthful and determined, a Dumpster dive. And ready availability is just part of it. A lot of online pornography is violent. Much of it merely demonstrates the astounding breadth of sexual appetites out there. Who knew that watching fully clad women try to drive cars out of mud and snow would count as a fetish? It does, apparently, as the surprisingly tame carstuckgirls.com proves.

How could the professoriate not know whether viewing this stuff will warp a young mind?

Ethics are a big part of it. The ideal study, say academics, would round up a group of teenagers who had never viewed online pornography, then provide them with a steady dose of it for two to three months. At the end, they would be quizzed to see whether their attitudes or actions had changed. There would be tests for both mental and physical effects.

Let’s leave aside the difficulties of finding porn-innocent teenagers. Exposing them to sexually explicit material is generally against the law, which means no university would approve of such a study. And what if it turned out that pornography is harmful to teenagers?

"A lot of review boards see this kind of research as a ticking time bomb," said Rory Reid, a research psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was a co-author of the paper with Owens. "Universities don’t want their name on the front page of a newspaper for an unethical study exposing minors to porn."

It doesn’t help that the technology is evolving so quickly. Video now streams efficiently to tablets and mobile phones, which has been true only for the past few years. Any study that looked at online pornography before these technologies emerged would understate the sheer quantity of X-rated material that a teenager can view, as well as where and when that viewing may occur. An iPad gets updated far faster than academic literature.

Simply defining terms in this realm is tricky. Justice Potter Stewart’s famous "I know it when it see it" approach to spotting obscenity isn’t quite rigorous enough for academia. Quantifying "exposure" and "harm" is difficult, too.

This is not to say that the vast body of research in this area is without lessons. Among the most prolific and revered researchers to examine teenagers and pornography is a duo in the Netherlands, Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg. The pair has been publishing studies about this issue for nearly a decade, most of it based on surveys of teenagers.

They found, as Peter put it in a recent telephone interview, that "when teens watch more porn they tend to be more dissatisfied with their sexual lives. This effect is not really a strong effect, though. And teens with more sexual experience didn’t show this effect at all."

The pair also found that adolescents who watch more porn than their peers are generally less averse to casual sex.

But almost as soon as Peter was done summarizing results, he started listing caveats. Pornography can never be described as the sole predictor of an attitude about sex, or any behavior; it’s always part of a constellation of predictors. Further, he said, he and Valkenburg have limited their surveys to Dutch teenagers, and extrapolating from their experience is not a good idea.

 

 

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