Online pornography: worrying risks for adolescents


For the first time in parliamentary history, a Senate information report examines the practices of the pornographic industry. It was presented on September 28 by Senators Alexandra Borchio-Fontimp (Les Républicains), Laurence Cohen (Communist), Laurence Rossignol (Socialist) and Annick Billon (Centrist Union), with the aim of causing an "electroshock" in France. and make it a "priority" in the public debate. Among the many recommendations is the growing place that pornography has taken among the youngest, knowing that children "will be confronted, during their minority, voluntarily or not, repeatedly, intensively or episodically, with violent pornographic content. ".

Adolescence is a time of upheavals and physical, biological and psychological maturation. For young people, the Internet will then seem a privileged place to seek information and share questions, confronting them alone with the dangers and risks of this use.

One in five adolescents would be affected by one of these risks : cyberstalking, contact with strangers, use of sexting and use of pornography.

The confrontation with online pornography is a risk that questions. Indeed, the number of such sites has multiplied exponentially: in 2007, there were already more than 4 million pornographic sites on the Internet and, often, it is enough to validate “to be major” or “to be over 18 years” to access it.

The use of online pornography by adolescents, at a crucial time in their development, raises questions about the consequences from a behavioral, sexual and psychological point of view.

What are the factors that may explain that some adolescents are more vulnerable than others?

More adolescents exposed than adolescent girls

Encountering pornographic content online can be accidental, resulting in particular from “pop-up” windows which open when searching for information on health or on topics which may or may not be of a sexual nature or from unwanted e-mails. . A study of 2017 estimated that one in five adolescents would have been accidentally exposed to pornographic material.

Another study in France showed that 58% of boys and 45% of girls had seen their first pornographic image. before the age of 13.

The confrontation with pornographic content can be accidental, due in particular to the opening of “pop-up” windows. 

Exposure can also be intentional: Studies estimate that more than half of teens regularly visit pornographic sites online. There are three main reasons for these voluntary consultations: seeking sexual information, connecting with someone, and entertainment or sexual arousal.

researchers Jochen Peter and Patti Valkenburg were able to note in 2016 that the adolescents concerned were more often boys, in a stage of precocious puberty, in search of sensations and who encountered relationship difficulties in their family.

Habituation phenomenon

It is difficult to determine the causes or consequences of viewing this type of online content as the factors may overlap with the consequences. For example, the use of online pornography can conflict with psychosexual development and predict sexual uncertainty, especially in girls, but also trigger depressive symptoms if intentional exposure is too early.

The use of online pornography is linked to behaviors described as instrumental or recreational, that is, sexual behaviors that place more value on the satisfaction of personal physical pleasure than on the emotional aspect in the relationship.

The frequency of its use affects beliefs about the role of genders in sexual relations, highlighting stereotypical beliefs: the notion of woman as a sexual object in a role of passivity and submission, and the notion of masculinity with the image. domination and aggression.

Studies have shown that gradually, with age and frequency of use, a phenomenon of habituation sets in, leading to the exploration of other sexual themes, even of a violent nature. Thus, it was found a link between regular users and use of coercion and abuse in sexual relations.

The consumption of psychoactive substances or alcohol has been found to be significantly linked to the use of online pornography but also to the practice of sexting. Psychoactive substances act on the feeling of disinhibition by accentuating it, and make it possible to attenuate the feeling of emotions such as shame or guilt. A phenomenon of association is then set up: the use of online pornography or sexting is gradually found associated with the consumption of substances or alcohol, thus creating a [conditioning].

Online porn use can trigger depressive symptoms if intentional exposure is too early.

School results appear to be impacted by the use of online pornography. However, it remains difficult to separate the use of the screen from the use of online pornography. The impact on school performance would undoubtedly be directly linked to a excessive use of screens, which itself would have an impact on sleep, learning skills, attention and memory.

Risk factors

Studies have been able to show that factors predispose to the use of online pornography. Adolescents with these factors develop greater use of online pornography.

First, the more Internet is used, the more it increases the risk of being accidentally confronted with pornographic sites. This increase will arouse sexual curiosity, promote the development of intentional use and decrease self-regulation. Faster connection, private access, use of social networks and weak parenting rules increase this effect.

Adolescence is a period when the gaze of peers is of considerable importance. Being part of a group, being recognized and accepted by one's peers are needs that will influence adolescent decision-making and behavior. Studies have been able to show that adolescents perceive a sexual norm through the discourse of peers, a norm to which they will try to conform.

The influence of peers will be all the greater if the adolescent does not have a protective factor and if he is a user of social networks, they altering peer perception.

Psychosexual development encompasses several concepts: the stage of puberty, gender identity and the level of sexual permissiveness. Studies have shown that adolescents use online pornography according to their stage of puberty: those whose puberty development seems complete are more frequent users compared to those at the beginning of their puberty development.

The level of sexual permissiveness (sexual attitudes outside of any committed or romantic relationship) seems to predict the use of pornography online. The level of permissiveness will be all the more important if the adolescent has not integrated social norms.

The results of studies of the link between psychiatric comorbidities and the use of online pornography reveal that depressive symptoms, low self-esteem and life satisfaction would be predictive of online pornography use. Likewise, the search for sensations, which is a personality trait found in risk-taking behaviors (such as substance use, risky sports, etc.) also seems to predict this use.

The influence of these predisposing factors to the use of pornographic material will be less or on the contrary accentuated depending on the presence or absence of a protective factor. For example, the role of parents is essential: parents who exercise significant psychological control will accentuate the influence of peers, while parents who favor discussion will have the opposite effect.

Likewise, the factors interact with each other, thus reinforcing their impact. For example, a teenager with depressive symptoms with low self-esteem and difficulty asserting himself will have more easily a tendency to isolate himself, to reinforce the use of screens and in this case to be more vulnerable to sexual solicitations on Internet.

Protective factors

Two protective factors for the use of online pornography have been identified: the dialogue on the use of online pornography in the family setting, and the practice of a religion.

Adolescent professionals and those close to adolescents often share the concern whether raising the issue of online pornography is encouraging or protective. In studies, it is shown that mentioning this use would have a protective effect. This openness to dialogue allows adolescents to feel listened to, taken into account. Discussion and exchanges allow information to be passed on.

Adolescents: what to tell them about porn? (RFI, “7 billion neighbors”, June 2019).

On the other hand, the establishment of firewalls or prohibitions by parents would have an incentive effect: to defy the prohibition. A family functioning open to dialogue will protect the adolescent from this usage.

The practice of a religion or religious beliefs would have a protective role in facilitating not only the integration of social norms, but also reflection, personal self-regulation, and social control. The adolescent then sees himself in a position to question what he sees in making connections with notions of respect, reality and also sharing.

To conclude, the consultation of pornographic material online in the period of adolescence is an increasingly precocious and important phenomenon. Behind the trivialization, there can be hidden problems in full development. Preventing use helps develop critical thinking in adolescents. An adapted prevention program must take into account all of these factors in order to increase the protective factors and reduce the risk factors.

Sandrine Charnier, Doctoral student in psychology- Clinical psychologist - Psychotherapist -, University of Lorraine; Joelle Lebreuilly, Lecturer in psychology, University of Lorraine et Martine Batt, University professor, University of Lorraine

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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