Teens and porn

Kids and sexual content online — how will pornography influence behaviour when they get older?

Teresa Pitman 0

My friend Cindy* called me in a panic. One of her neighbours had just knocked on her door, absolutely furious. Apparently my friend’s 12-year-old son, Adam, and the neighbour’s son had been playing on the computer in Cindy’s basement — as they often did.

This time, however, the boys had checked out a porn site — whether accidentally or on purpose, Cindy wasn’t sure. The neighbour’s boy went home and asked his mother about something he and Adam had seen. A short time later, his mother was angrily confronting Cindy.

Your teen is likely seeing pornography as well. And it’s likely a lot more explicit than anything you may have encountered at his age.

A generation ago, most boys glanced through magazines pilfered from older brothers’ rooms or relied on the underwear pages of the Sears catalogue when they wanted to check out female bodies. But that’s changed.

*Names changed by request.

A study of kids, media and pornography

Sonya Thompson was a University of Alberta graduate student who was training sex education teachers when she realized there was no research on young teens and their access to and use of pornography. So Thompson decided to conduct her own study. She recruited more than 400 grade-eight students from various parts of Alberta and had them complete an anonymous survey about things they’d seen in various forms of media. Here’s what she learned:

• Most of the kids in the study (88 percent of the boys and 72 percent of the girls) had seen porn on the Internet, and the majority had watched pornographic DVDs as well. A smaller percentage had watched porn on digital or satellite TV.

• A higher percentage of rural children had seen pornography than those in urban centres, and they tended to see more.

• Significant gender differences came up in the study. Boys tended to seek out porn and often watched it alone. Girls were more likely to come across porn accidentally on the Internet; if they did seek it out, they usually watched it with other girls.

• While the majority of boys watched porn alone, a smaller percentage of boys tended to get together with other male friends for the purpose of watching porn.

• More than a third of the boys said they had seen porn “too many times to count.” Only eight percent of girls gave this response.

Even when parents were careful to restrict their children’s access to TV and the Internet, Thompson reports that teens were able to access porno-graphy at the homes of friends. She also points out that teenagers are often the most computer-savvy people in their households, so even when parents put blocking software on their computers, teens can figure out how to override it.

Solutions for parents

A better solution, according to Thompson, is to recognize that they are probably going to see it, and start talking. “Teens need to know that pornography is no more ‘real’ than WWF wrestling,” she says. “Teens need help in understanding that it is theatrical, that the people are paid actors, that it tends to be very extreme.” She’s also concerned about the lack of safe sex practices shown: “You never see a condom.”

She adds that it worries her that more than a third of boys seem to be watching quite a lot of pornography. “How will this influence their behaviour when they get a bit older and start dating girls?” she asks.

Teens and parents rarely watch television or use the Internet together, Thompson found. Just as happened with my friend Cindy, teens often have computers or TVs (or both) in their rooms or in another room separate from where the parents are. Yes, it seems convenient when your child wants a quiet setting to do research or write essays on the computer, but it also makes it easier to access inappropriate materials. Thompson’s study found that only 16 percent of the teens reported any monitoring of their Internet use, but almost half had some discussion with their parents about pornography. That’s good news because she also found a definite correlation between these discussions and lower levels of interest in sexually explicit media.

My friend’s first move — after calming down her neighbour — was to get the computer out of the basement and into the family room, where Cindy could keep an eye on how it was being used. And she had a serious talk with Adam about appropriate websites.

“I’d encourage parents to go online and see what their children are able to easily access,” Thompson adds. “I think many will be a bit shocked to realize what’s out there. Our kids are growing up in a highly sexualized environment, and they really need their parents’ help to get through it.”

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