Michael Carr-Gregg: Youth in grip of online onanism
December 29, 2003
In the olden days teenage boys would go down to the local newsagent after school and take a few furtive peaks at Playboy or Penthouse. But they would still have the excitement at the thought of kissing the girl down the street. Today's young people need not venture out of the house, as such titillation is far more explicit and just a click of a mouse button away.
The Australia Institute released a report in March this year entitled Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the Extent of Exposure and Likely Effects. It suggested that among 16 to 17-year-olds, 84 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls have had exposure to net pornography, 38 per cent of boys but only 2 per cent of girls say they have deliberately sought out sex sites and just under a quarter of boys and 7 per cent of girls "accidentally" encounter sex sites every week. What's more, 73 per cent of boys and 11 per cent of girls have watched X-rated videos. Around 4-5 per cent of boys identify as frequent (weekly) users of pornography. That looking at hard-core pornography is widespread among teenagers is hardly surprising, given that access to the internet has never been easier, its users never younger, and the smorgasbord of pornography available never greater.
So what impact does seeing such images during adolescence have on young people? Do porn sites warp adolescents, will we see over the next 10 years the "caligulafication" of Australian youth? Somewhat surprisingly, given the level of concern, there's very little published research in Australia and much of the overseas literature has concentrated on the impact on adults. In 2001 the American Psychiatric Association convened a panel titled "Voyeurism in the New Millennium: A Prime-Time Obsession?" Discussion centred on the amount of time young people were spending – up to 10 hours at a time – on the internet, impacts on diet, sleep habits and whether viewing porn would become a substitute for real interpersonal skills, but no empirical studies were presented.
Clinical experience suggests that there is a continuum of online voyeurism among teens. At one end is the vast majority, who are simply curious, at the other end, compulsive users whose viewing may cause serious problems. Almost all teenage boys want to know what sex is about, and pornographic websites provide some answers to their questions particularly about the "mechanics" of the sex act.
For most of my clients, their flirtation with porn is often a passing phase – a transition, almost a rehearsal for the real thing. The trouble with pornography begins when, instead of this inquisitiveness being merely a way station on the road to full sexual relations, it becomes a permanent truck stop. The longer they spend in this part of cyberspace, the more difficult it becomes for them to make the switch to reality. As with some drugs, pornography provides a quick fix, a masturbatory cosmos in which some get lost.
Research does suggest that depictions of sexual behaviour may be emotionally disturbing to young people who encounter them. One survey found that 53 per cent of children aged 11-17 had seen or experienced something on the internet they thought was offensive or disgusting. The respondents said that they felt "sick", "yuck", "disgusted", "repulsed" and "upset".
Others may be troubled by images of non-mainstream behaviours, given that the range of sexual activity found on the internet is now broader than the range found in "mainstream" society. The other problem is that exposure to non-mainstream sexual behaviours may make teenagers more likely to accept and adopt them. This is particularly interesting in terms of anecdotal reports of a sharp increase in oral sex activity among Australian teenagers. Bettina Arndt commented recently that it didn't say much for the liberation of women, if early sexual experiences for young girls are dominated by activities designed only to keep boys happy.
The Australia Institute report expressed particular concern over violent pornography, suggesting that it may be a risk factor for young men's perpetration of sexual assault and may cultivate greater tolerance of this behaviour by others. Given that young women are three to four times more likely to be subject to sexual and physical violence than older women and young men aged 15-25 are responsible for more sexual assaults than older males, this is a legitimate concern.
The precise social and psychological consequences that flow from the ubiquity of increasingly violent sexual material on the net remains unknown. As a psychologist interested in adolescent health, it is doubtful that such consequences could be advantageous.
Some time-poor parents plead guilty to using the net as an electronic baby sitter. Given the research, albeit in embryo, parents should monitor not just what their offspring are seeing but also how much time they spend visiting such sites. At the risk of being labelled a neoprohibitionist zealot, it's OK to be troubled by something – even though it can't be measured or stopped. If the majority share this concern, then at least perhaps teen porn consumption won't become a "social norm".
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is a psychologist working with adolescents at the Albert Road Centre for Health in Melbourne.