While not all children react the same way to sexually explicit material, it appears clear to me that exposure to pornographic material can be harmful and shape one’s beliefs, attitude, and behaviors, despite a lack of clear consensus amongst academics.
While watching television, a commercial for a cream to rid scars evoked feelings of hope, excitement, and motivation for me to go to the store to purchase the product. This is the intention of effective advertising- it changed my thoughts, feelings and behavior. Now think about this: if a 10 second commercial on television can influence my perception of a product, my beliefs about my needs as an adult and swiftly motivate me to behave differently, what kinds of messages are influencing children and young people’s behavior, and in what way? In particular- what is the cost of exposure to pornography on behavior and beliefs.
The average child today has countless opportunities to be exposed to sexualized messages each and every day, both intentionally and by accident. Children are not only exposed through interaction with peers or adults, but through the Internet, music, television, media, movies, advertisements, and cellphones. We are living in a digital world with continuous advances of technology and Internet usage amongst children increasing significantly. Children now, more than ever, have access at their fingertips to disturbing, graphic, sexually explicit material at a click of a button. Children are continuously exposed to explicit material on the Internet whether unintentionally or deliberately. A child casually surfing the internet can easily be exposed to pornographic material through email attachments, unsolicited links, advertisement pop ups, and, what I find all too often when searching the internet for an unrelated topic, finding themselves directed to sites containing sexual material without warning. Conversely, many children actively seek out porn at a young age, with some sources suggesting porn consumption is almost ubiquitous among young people. In the UK there has been a push for Internet service providers to utilize filters blocking explicit content as a default, despite EU laws around net neutrality and censorship, as well as mixed beliefs about the necessity and efficacy of such laws since they were first proposed in 2014.
In Fred Kaeser’s blog The Super- Sexualization of Children, he points out that by the time a child reaches puberty, she has likely been exposed to thousands of sexualized messages. As a therapist I worry about what I see as the inevitable effect on children from early exposure to pornography and other forms of explicit sexual content. Is it possible for porn to contribute to increased risk of child sexual abuse and children sexually acting out against another? Public health organizations across the globe share this fear. Further, can continuous exposure prompt desires to engage in higher risk sexual experiences? Empirical research is sporadic and faces ethical concerns, although studies have suggested that exposure to pornography can prompt children to act out sexually against children who are vulnerable, smaller, or younger. Other work links early pornographic use to delinquent behavior and substance use. As a social worker working closely with young people, I believe children exhibiting sexually deviant behaviors could stem from exposure to pornography. Moreover, one could suspect that habitual use of pornography could affect children and adolescents to become de-sensitized to sexualized behaviors. However, the current research shows mixed results with some studies showing a link between pornography use and risky behavior and others showing no association.
Unfortunately, in pornography, it is rare to see normative and healthy sexual behavior. Consequently, Fred Kaeser Ed.D asserts, “these sexual messages are not only explicit but also violent and demeaning in nature, awash in male dominant and female submissive imagery- misogynistic, heterosexist, homophobic, and sensational”. As many parents know, small children will role-play or act out what they watch whether on TV or through others around them. The classic Bobo doll experiment is a prime example of how easy it is for children to copy the positive or negative behavior modeled in front of them. It is therefore not a stretch to think that when children are exposed to sexual violence and sexualized behaviors commonly seen on everyday TV and via the Internet they may in turn act out these behaviors. Children exposed to material that dehumanizes people in sexual scenes frequently found in pornography could form false perceptions about healthy sexuality. Pornography encourages sexual acts that minimize respect for the other with no healthy or emotional connection to the other, as well as a lack of onscreen discussion around clear consent and enjoyment.
It has been my experience working personally with children and adolescents that pornography has contributed to the sexual abuse of other children, sexual violence, acting out sexually with other children, and it has significantly interfered with their development and identity. Countless adolescents and teens that I see in a clinical setting report being addicted to pornography, which has shaped their attitudes and beliefs around sex and engaging in sexual behaviors. More often, I have found that children exposed to sexual explicit material experience confusion and mixed emotions about what they have seen- turning to other confused peers or seeking more understanding from available resources online -only creating more confusion and unnecessary exposure.
Children cope with exposure to sexually graphic material in different ways. As I have seen in my professional work with at-risk young people, pornography may begin to shape a child’s sexual values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in a number of detrimental ways, including:
- Premature sexualization of children
- Encouraging experimentation with sexually explicit behavior
- Increasing social acceptance of high-risk behavior
- Shaping unrealistic expectations in relationships
- Influencing standards of physical appearances
- Normalizing certain sexual acts
- Increased risk of victimization, as it may blur boundaries
- Increased health risks (i.e. sexually transmitted infections, sexual exploitation, etc.)
- Increased a child’s risk of problematic sexual behavior against other children in an effort to experiment
- May interfere with a child’s healthy sexual development
Regardless of the controversy with consensus on the impact of the exposure to sexually explicit material on children, being prevention proactive rather than reactive seems to be the more ideal approach. Resources such as Protectkids.com list many possible ways that exposure can affect children, but what seems most clear is the need for more research about how sexually explicit material affects our children. It is important for parents and practitioners to be informed of the risks, in order to prepare their children for safe engagement in sexual activity and consumption of explicit media at an appropriate age. Keep in mind, if a 10 second commercial on television is sufficient to influence adults’ beliefs about a product and motivate us to behave in a certain way, what can 10 seconds of porn really do to a child’s emerging and malleable beliefs about sex, sexuality and themselves?