How Does the Internet Affect Adolescents? What the Data Tells Us

As a sex addiction therapist, I tend to see the negative side of internet pornography. The people that come to me have problems with cyberpornography. The research tells us that about 10% of all users of online pornography end up having a problem (or addiction). What about the other 90%? Some people manage to be “recreational” pornography users and report no issues at all. So what about adolescents? Does this trend apply to teens as well as adults?

In 2012 a group of researchers published a review of the data on the effects of online pornography on adolescents. Though there is not a large volume of research in this area, we are starting to get a picture of the impact.

What did the research find?

Looking at pornography can impact adolescents’ attitudes and beliefs about sex. Sex that is portrayed in pornography does not necessarily mimic what happens between two people who are not actors in the pornography industry. Viewing this material as a teen can influence how one views sex, creating the expectation that what is seen in pornography is similar to “real-world” sex. This is not always the case. Though some teens are able to distinguish between fantasy and reality when it comes to pornography, there is still some influence on the attitudes of those who watch the material.

Another theme of the research is that looking at sexual imagery online is normal for teens. They are using online technology to satisfy sexual curiosity. Culturally, among adolescents, viewing pornography is no longer seen as something that is shameful or wrong but something that is socially acceptable.

Problems may arise depending on the amount of time a teen spends looking at pornography, as it has been found that frequent users of pornography think about sex more often, are distracted by thoughts of sex more frequently and tend to have more permissive attitudes about sex. Greater exposure to pornography also influences the objectification of women. Both boys and girls tend to increasingly view women as sex objects with increased exposure to sexually explicit material.

As the internet is now more commonly used as a tool for sex education, there can be no surprise that exposure to pornography can influence sexual behavior. Studies have found that adolescents learn about sex from watching pornography. The teens that look at more pornography tend to have a distorted view of sexuality. They also tend to have sex earlier than those teens that are not exposed to pornography as frequently. These findings also suggest that these teens are engaging in riskier sexual behavior and might be at higher risk for things such as STDs.

Another finding of the review relates to body image and self-esteem. Frequently consuming pornographic material is a self-esteem/body image hit for both genders. Young men tend to express concerns about their ability to perform sexually as their model for performance is what they see in pornography. Young women tend to express body image issues, with insecurities not meeting the ideal body type in pornography being a main concern.

While the research into the effects of exposure to online pornography on adolescents is in its infancy, I think we can glean some useful information from what we currently find in the literature. Teens are looking at online pornography and it is considered normal for them. Many teens do not have any issues with it and can understand that what they see in the images is not necessarily reality. The problems arise more with teens that are having more frequent exposure to online pornography. These teens can be adversely affected by what they are watching. It can be a set up for negative self-image as well as unrealistic expectations of “real world” sex.

To read the full study please see: Owens, E.W., Behun, R.J., Manning, J.C. & Reid, R. C. (2012). The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 19; 99-122.

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