Pornography’s Effects on Teens
by Family Honor National Advisory Board Member
Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D., SATP, CSAT-C
by Family Honor National Advisory Board Member
Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D., SATP, CSAT-C
Many parents today are worried about the effects of pornography on their kids, especially teenagers. While they can protect them at home, there’s no telling what their kids will encounter when they go out into the world. Parents need to accept the fact that their teens will encounter pornography. The best defense against pornography is to educate themselves and their teens about the dangers of pornography just like we do for drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
What Teens Are Viewing
So, what kinds of porn are teens viewing and how are they accessing it? Pornography today comes in many forms. There’s visual porn found in magazines, DVDs, Internet movies, video games, music videos, comic books, and anime. There is also written porn found in romance novels, magazines, blogs, and online erotic stories. Because our society is saturated with sexualized images, many people have progressed from viewing and reading pornography to making their own amateur porn. They are taking nude pictures and videos of themselves and their partners, often having sex, and posting them online. This is how many teens are using social media. They are using sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat to exchange pornographic images, or using social media to chat and send pornographic messages to one another. This could be considered a written form of pornography. The latest technology being used for pornographic purposes is virtual reality. Using virtual reality equipment (i.e. goggles, earphones, gloves, masturbators, etc.), people can engage in “virtual sex” that is incredibly lifelike. Thus, today pornography has become interactive.
How Is It Accessed?
Both teens and pornographers have kept pace with the latest developments in technology. Whenever a new gadget, program or app comes out, teens often are the first to use them and pornographers find a way to peddle their wares through them. Teens are accessing pornography through desktop and laptop computers, netbooks, tablets, iPads, iPods, MP3 players, Xbox, Wii, PlayStation, Kindle, Nook, eReaders, portable video game systems, and cell phones. Any gadget that can access the Internet, download information, or be used to communicate with others can be used for pornographic purposes. The more portable the device, the more likely a teen will use it for pornography because it can be easily hidden from others.
What Does Research Tell Us?
In 2012, Tru Research conducted over two thousand online interviews with teens ages 13–17, and their parents, and found 71% of teens have taken some form of action to hide their online activity from their parents, including clearing browser history, deleting items, lying, using a smartphone, blocking parents with social media privacy settings, using private browsing, disabling parental controls, and creating social media accounts without parental knowledge. Only 12% of parents were aware that their teens were viewing porn (Le, 2012).
Teens are naturally curious about sex. They will take any opportunity to learn more about it, and this curiosity, combined with their tech savviness, naturally leads them to the Internet for information that is often wrong and dangerous. Several studies have found that teenagers around the world report using porn to gain information about “real-life sex” (Giordano & Ross, 2012; Flood, 2009; Lauzus et al, 2007; Wade et al, 2005). This shows the need for parents to provide their kids with an effective sexual education.
Even teens who don’t seek sexual content online are often bombarded with it. In a 2015 study, the Barna Group found that more teenagers come across Internet pornography accidentally (49%) than purposely seek it out (37%) (Barna, 2016).
While I place heavy emphasis on technology as the source and method of pornography use for teens, we cannot forget the many other ways teens have become sexualized by our culture. Other forms of pornographic images and messages can be found in the following mediums:
Effects of Pornography
As with children, exposure to pornography can be devastating for teens, but with teens it can be more serious because they are becoming sexual beings. In order to discuss this impact, we need to ask ourselves what messages teens are receiving from porn. These messages are also different for boys and girls.
For boys, the messages are:
For girls, the messages are:
The degree to which teens accept these messages depends on the individual, but pornography is changing the way teens view sex and relationships.
Psychology Today published an article in January of 2014 on how porn is influencing adolescent boys’ views on relationships. It highlights the danger that they are no longer learning what it means to develop healthy romantic relationships because they’re using online porn as their model for real-life sexual relationships. In porn, these boys don’t see a storyline or an emotional connection. There is no concern for physical or emotional safety. There is no romance or tenderness. Kissing and foreplay are entirely absent. “All that’s there is an endless stream of idealized body parts and sexual acts.” The article goes on to assert that this is rewiring these boys’ brains not only to expect but to demand unrealistic levels of stimulation and excitement, resulting in boys “becoming totally out of sync with real-world romantic relationships.” The article cites two large-scale surveys (2008 and 2010) that the issue is more prevalent than people think, and growing (R. Weiss, 2014).
Sexualization of Girls and Women
There is also is a distinct double standard. While teenage girls are becoming more sexually aggressive, they are still being used sexually and are little more than sex toys for teenage boys. This is detrimental to both sexes because it prevents them from being able to establish and maintain healthy relationships as teens and adults.
For over forty years, studies have consistently shown how the sexualization of women is harmful, especially to teenage girls and young women. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the sexualization of women leads to girls and young women feeling bad about themselves. There is evidence that sexualization contributes to impaired academic performance and can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, and even physical health problems in high school aged girls and young women. Sexualizing treatment and self-objectification can generate feelings of self-loathing, anxiety, and even disgust toward one’s physical self. Girls feel that they are ugly and gross. Furthermore, the APA makes the vital point that sexualization practices may function to keep girls in their place as objects of sexual attraction, limiting their free thinking and movement in the culture (APA, 2007).
Harm to Both Sexes
The messages pornography presents are extremely harmful to both sexes. These effects include:
1. Changing Attitudes toward Sex. Pornography use misleads teens about the type of sex average people are having. They believe that deviant forms of sex are normal and healthy. This can lead them to engage in dangerous forms of sex including group sex, oral and anal sex, violent sex, homosexual sex, and even sadomasochistic sex. It has even changed their definition of what sex is. For many, only sexual intercourse is considered “sex.” Oral sex, anal sex, self and mutual masturbation, etc., are not considered sex, but simply “messing around.” Boys now believe that women love sex and want it all the time, especially the deviant sex in porn. Because they see a woman in porn acting like she enjoys being brutally raped by half a dozen men, boys can come to believe that this is what women want, that this is normal. Girls are left believing that they have to engage in deviant sex in order to attract and keep a boyfriend, and that they should like this kind of sex. An analysis of forty-six independent studies concluded that pornography use directly contributes to sexually dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors. The adverse effects include developing sexually deviant attractions, committing sexual offenses, difficulties in relationships, and accepting rape myths (e.g. a rape victim deserved the rape or wanted it) (Paolucci-Oddone et al., 2000).
2. Changing Attitudes toward Women. Several studies have found that when both boys and girls are exposed to sexualized media, they are more likely to view women as sex objects (Ward, 2006; Peter, 2007). It creates a cynical attitude toward relationships with little hope for a stable monogamous relationship. This sexualization of girls is very harmful to them and reduces them to sex toys for boys. It’s easy to see how boys can buy into this attitude because it naturally benefits them sexually. However, girls also buy into this. Why? Because it is where they find their self-worth. For many teenage girls and young women, the “hotter” they feel they look, the more self-worth they feel. This is a warped view of beauty and self-value because it is based on one’s ability to be a sex object for others. It’s scary to think that female porn stars have become the model for beauty to which girls believe they must aspire. A beautiful teenage girl may look at herself in the mirror and think, “I’m so hot! I’m just like a porn star! This is great!” Another beautiful girl who does not look like a porn star may think there is actually something wrong with her, that she is ugly. No consideration is given to either girl’s true physical beauty, personality, values, gifts, talents, or to the simple fact that she is a child of God.
3. Increased Sexual Activity. Exposure to pornography naturally makes a person want to engage in what they are viewing and is why sexual activity among teens has risen exponentially over the years. Sexualized media leads to an early onset of sexual activity in youth. Young people come to believe they should be having sex all the time, and if they are not “getting any” regularly, there is something wrong with them (Zillman, 2000).
4. Increased Sexual Harassment. Pornography use among teens has led to a rise in sexual aggressiveness and harassment in person and online. In a 2006 study of 1,500 teens, one in seven reported unwanted sexual solicitation online and one in eleven had been harassed online (Wolak et al., 2006). Another study of 804 Italian teenagers found that boys who viewed pornography were significantly more likely to have sexually harassed a peer or forced someone to have sex with them (Bonino et al., 2006). This shouldn’t surprise us. Because pornography use leads teens to view women as sex objects, not as people, it makes it easier to harass them into having sex. And since the women in pornography are often used in sexually abusive ways, teens can come away thinking that it’s okay to use women this way. This abuse happens in person and online. Girls are pressured to tolerate physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in order to be accepted by boys (Manning, 2006). Harassment can also be the result of how kids are introduced to pornography. In one study, 101 sexually abusive Australian children claimed that an older sibling or friend showed them how to access pornography online, and another quarter said pornography use was their main reason for going online. Being introduced to pornography by an older person can make the sex portrayed in it appear to be normal and accepted (Goodenough, 2003).
5. Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. As more teens are exposed to sexually explicit media, a dangerous message they are receiving is that sex can be enjoyed without responsibility or consequence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that pornography “immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world” (2354). Pornography is not the real world. It appears to be a consequence-free experience where no one gets hurt, pregnant, used, abused, or contracts a sexually transmitted disease. Because this make-believe world is projected to teens, pornography poses a threat to their health. Teenage pregnancies may be dropping, but those who use pornography are more likely to become teenage parents. This could also account for the many abortions performed on teens today. It’s well known that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise among teens. In the United States, about 25% of sexually active teens contract a sexually transmitted disease each year, resulting in three million cases of teenage STDs annually. According to the Centers for Disease Control (2011), nearly half of all STDs are contracted by young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. The deviant forms of sex promoted in pornography make teens vulnerable to most sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. While parents and schools warn teens about STDs, few see the relationship between STDs and pornography use.
6. Inability to Have Healthy Relationships. All of the risks listed above can hinder a person’s ability to maintain a healthy relationship. If pornography only teaches young people to use others sexually, they will not be able to trust one another. They will only be in a relationship for what each can get out of it, not for what they can contribute. Pornography teaches selfishness. Like adults, teens crave intimate relationships too, but they never learn how to have one. They’re only out for what they can get. Pornography is also damaging girls’ ability to trust and relate to boys. In order to feel like equals, girls must be sexually aggressive, and the quality of a relationship is then judged on how good the sex is. This leads to very cynical attitudes toward relationships, and as they get older they lose hope for having a healthy long-term relationship let alone a happy marriage.
While the information here may appear to paint a bleak picture about the future for our teens, it doesn’t have to be that way. As stated earlier, education is the best defense. An excellent resource is my book, Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography (2014).
In addition to educating teens on the dangers of pornography, we need to provide them with an effective sexual education. We also need to teach them about healthy relationships, communication, virtue, and respect for themselves and for others. Pope St. John Paul II’s writings on the Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility are excellent resources that Catholic Parents can use to educate their teens on healthy sexuality and relationships. By keeping the lines of communication open between teens and parents, we can help our teens grow into healthy adults.
APA task force on the sexualization of girls (2007). Retrieved on May 15, 2013 from
Barna and McDowell, Josh (2016). The porn phenomenon: The impact of pornography in the digital age. Ventura, CA: The Barna Group.
Bonino, S, Ciairano, S., Rabaglietti, E., Cattelino, E. (2006). Use of pornography and self-reported engagement in sexual violence among adolescents, in European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 3, pp. 265–88.
Centers for Disease Control (2011). STDs in adolescents and young adults in 2011 sexually transmitted diseasesurveillance. Retrieved on May 26, 2013 from http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats11/adol.htm
Flood, M. & Hamilton C. (2003). Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects, Discussion Paper No. 52, The Australia Institute, Canberra.
Giordano & Ross, 2012; Flood, 2009; Lauzus et al, 2007; Wade et al, 2005. Stop Porn Culture. Retrieved on June 5, 2005 from http://stoppornculture.org/about/about-the-issue/facts-and-figures-2/
Goodenough, P. (2003). Online porn driving sexually aggressive children. Retrieved on May 22, 2013 from CSSNews.com
Le, J. (2012, June). The digital divide: How the online behavior of teens is getting past parents. McAfee.com Retrieved on December 9, 2013 from http://www. mcafee.com/us/resources/misc/digital-divide-study.pdf
Paolucci-Oddone, E., Genuis, M., & Violato, C. (2000). A meta-analysis on the published research on the effects of pornography.
In Violato, C., Paolucci-Oddone, E., & Genuis, M. (2000). The changing family and child development. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Peter, J. and Valkenburg, P. M. (2007). Adolescents’ exposure to a sexualized media environment and their notions of women as sex objects, Sex Roles, 56. February 2007, pp. 381–95.
Ward, L. M. & Friedman, K. (2006). Using TV as a guide: Associations between television viewing and adolescents’ sexual attitudes and behaviors, Journal of Research on Adolescents. 16, no. 1. March 2006, pp. 133–56.
Weiss, R. (2014, January 20). Is male porn use ruining sex? Are men becoming totally out of sync with real-world romantic relationships? Psychology Today. Retrieved on June 5, 2014 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age/201401/is-male-porn-use-ruining-sex
Wolack, J., Mitchell, K. J., & Finkelhorn, D. (2006). Online victimization of youth: Five years later. Retrieved on May 22, 2013 from www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV138.pdf
Zillman, D. (2000). Influence of unrestrained access to erotica on adolescents’ and young adults’ dispositions toward sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27S(2), 41–44.
Dr. Kleponis is a Licensed Clinical Therapist and Assistant Director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in Conshohocken, PA. He holds an M.A. in Clinical-Counseling Psychology from LaSalle University in Philadelphia, PA and a Ph.D. in General Psychology from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.
For more information on Dr. Kleponis, go to: https://familyhonor.org/advisory-board/