Saturday, March 07, 2015

Porn and Young People

Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal...
Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Scholars Are Unsure of the Effects of Exposure to Online Sex


DAVID SEGAL


Starting late last year, Internet service providers in Britain made “family-friendly filters,” which block X-rated websites, the default for costumers. 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 children are exposed to pornography. 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.”

And here is where the topic starts to get very 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 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.

The researchers found a link between exposure to pornography and risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. “Causal relationship” between pornography and risky behavior “could not be established,” the researchers concluded. It’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has.

American scholars have come to nearly identical conclusions. “By the end we looked at 40 to 50 studies,” said Eric Owens, an assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an 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, ‘O.K., 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. And ready availability is just part of it. A lot of online pornography is violent. Much of it merely demonstrates the 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 carstuckgirls.com proves.

Ethics prevent academics from conducting the ideal study. 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 or 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.

Exposing them to sexually explicit material is against the law, which means no university would approve of such a study. What if it turned out that pornography is harmful?
Video now streams efficiently to tablets and mobile phones, which has been true only for the last 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.

This is not to say that the vast body of research in this area is without lessons. Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg in the Netherlands found, as Mr. Peter put it, 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 typical peers are generally less averse to casual sex.

Miranda Horvath, one of the lead researchers behind the Children’s Commissioner report, says that the most revealing part of the research came during an improvised debate, where a group of teenagers – ages 16 to 18, both girls and boys – was divided into two camps. One was instructed to argue that pornography had an impact on them, the other that pornography did not.

The pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder.

“They said it had an impact on their body image, on what young people think sex should be like, what they could expect from sex,” said Ms. Horvath, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University in London. “They talked about how if you see things in pornography, you might think it’s something you should be doing and go and do it.”

The no-impact camp could not fill up its allotted 15 minutes. After a couple of minutes, the person chosen to speak turned to the rest of the team and asked, “What else should I say?”

Neuroscience tells us that young minds tend to respond to emotionally charged material in ways that adults don’t. Given that pornography is emotionally charged, it would be shocking if it had no impact.

That may be why every academic I spoke to offered cautionary advice.

Rory Reid, a research psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “I have a son and I don’t want him getting his information about human sexuality from Internet porn because the vast majority of such material contains fraudulent messages about sex.”

Many teenagers will insist they know the difference between pornography and real sex, in the same way that they know “World of Warcraft” isn’t an actual world. But researchers say it’s a bad idea to hope that young people intuit what is fake about pornography.

“One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,” Professor Horvath said.” If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.”

At a minimum, researchers believe a parent-teenager conversation about sexuality and pornography is a good idea. Putting a computer in a child’s room without any limits on what can be viewed, Professor Reid said, is like tossing a teenager the keys to a car and saying: “Go learn how to drive. Have fun.”


Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, April 12, 2014


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