Teenage kicks: Is internet porn creating a damaged generation?

With just a few clicks of a mouse, modern teenagers have easy access to hardcore and often violent pornography. But are we raising a damaged generation as a consequence? The leading psychologist Terri Apter investigates

Type into google any common female name, or the name of a sweet (such as a lollipop) or a flower (a blue orchid, say) and up will come links to websites that open on to a disturbing new world – a world of extreme pornography that includes images of child rape and other acts of sexual torture. But these are not sites restricted to private systems requiring credit-card payments or age verification; indeed, they are easily accessible by children.

It is now estimated that 12 per cent of our five- to seven-year-olds and 16 per cent of eight- to 17-year-olds have unintentionally stumbled on to some of the estimated 250 million pages of pornography on the internet, while 38 per cent of older teens admit to seeking out such sites. And what they find is a far cry from the "top shelf" magazines their parents might have stashed under their mattresses when they were teens.

In chat rooms, meanwhile, it takes only the input of minimal personal details for a person anywhere in the world to be alerted when a child goes online – and then to instigate a conversation to explore and exploit the child's interests and insecurities. Research across several countries shows that 31 per cent of young people aged from nine to 19 who go online at least once a week have received uninvited sexual comments.

According to Ofcom, 66 per cent of parents say they are concerned about what a child might access on the internet, and at the top of their list of concerns is exposure to sexually explicit material. It is not just knowing that graphic, violent pornography is available on the internet; parents are also worrying about the impact such material may have on their children's – and particularly their sons' – emotional and intellectual development.

Helen, who has three boys – Sam, aged 13, Jake, aged 15, and Gary, aged 16 – admits to being anxious about what they are viewing on the net. All three of her sons display the technological savvy characteristic of young people from the so-called "internet generation". Jake helps his mother download music on to her iPod and access that vital episode of Desperate Housewives she missed. Sam uses his skill with graphics software to format Jake's history coursework. Gary, who is dyslexic, has had his schoolwork transformed with the use of a special software programme that works with him to improve his spelling and grammar. Computers with web access are an intrinsic part of young people's lives, yet for Helen they also pose undefined dangers.

"There is so much out there on the internet and it's hard for a parent to monitor what children are exposed to," she says. "It's easy for kids to come across porn, whether they're looking for it or not. When their friends recommend a pornographic website, it's tempting for them to take a look. But, what then? I don't want to be a control freak. I want to show my boys that I trust them. It's just that the porn out there is truly awful, and it's upsetting to think about my boys coming into contact with it, even though it's an inevitable rite of passage."

While Helen wrestles over the balance between the benefits of free use of the internet on the one hand and overseeing her sons' activities on the other, Ann, the mother of 13-year-old Tom, gives primary weight to her role as protector. "As a mum I want to keep him safe," she says. "It's scary to think his innocence could be stolen away in the safety of his own room. I keep the filters locked and I track the sites he visits. Some of the sites out there are toxic. You can see boys whose heads are filled with that stuff. I want to keep my own boy away from that corruption." Phil, another parent, also makes use of sophisticated internet filters. He wants to protect both his 13-year-old son and his 11-year-old daughter, whose "sociability and curiosity, combined with her very trusting nature, make her vulnerable," he says.

There is every reason to condemn pornography as an industry when it coerces, drugs or enslaves its workers, but over a period of years, in many different regions, links between pornography users and sex crimes as well as negative attitudes towards women have been investigated, and at no time, in no region, have such links been found. Ann blanches with surprise when I tell her that research shows no causal link in adults between the use of pornography – even violent pornography – and sexual criminality; indeed, in some regions, increased access to pornography has been shown to be correlated with reduced incidences of sex crimes. Such findings are counter-intuitive, and few parents accept their validity.

The fact is that most children explore pornography at some time in their lives, and there is no statistical evidence that it causes specific harm. Of course, what matters is how a child engages with this material. A passing curiosity may be easily satisfied and the interest abandoned; but sexual images have a special vividness and power, and may become addictive, as can many other internet activities, such as chatting or shopping or gaming. Personal accounts by people who have developed an obsession with pornography are disturbing: "It almost lodges itself into your mind, like a parasite sucking away the rest of your life," explains 16-year-old Malcolm, who participated in a 2007 study and reported spending between three to four hours each day visiting pornographic sites.

As well as the prospect of teenage boys watching violent porn, there is a concern about how it might distort their attitudes towards sex and women. "My boys are so sweet and loving towards me and their girl cousins," Helen says. "The notion that girls or women are somehow lesser beings or mere objects of desire doesn't occur to them. I want to preserve that. We are trying to bring our children up to respect themselves and other people and to see that sex has consequences for people you care about, and who care about you. Allowing teenage boys to watch people flaunting sexual activity and displaying themselves and trying to titillate others with their antics is not the way to instil respect for others."

This, in turn, leads to other concerns. If boys see girls merely as sex objects, they're unlikely to respect them when it comes to matters such as contraception. In the UK, the pregnancy rate among teenagers aged 15 to 19 years is 27 per 1,000. In the Netherlands, the pregnancy rate for teenagers of that age is five per 1,000. This difference appears to hinge on the varying reasons teenage boys in the UK and the Netherlands give for having sex. In the Netherlands, 56 per cent of teenage boys say that their reason for having sex is love and commitment to a relationship, whereas in the UK, love and commitment are seen by only 14 per cent of boys as a reason for having sex. Young people in Holland become sexually active at the same age as teens in the UK – a lot younger than parents would like – but while 85 per cent of teens in Holland use contraception the first time they have intercourse, only 50 per cent do so in the UK. Associating sex with love and commitment results in more considerate and careful sexual behaviour.

Surely pornography interferes with such respect for others, particularly for sexual partners? Pornography ticks all the boxes for objectifying other people. In porn, a sex partner is treated as a tool for one's own purposes; the partner is interchangeable, valued only for the provision of pleasure. Nevertheless, internet pornography cannot be the cause of the significant difference between attitudes among teens in the UK and the Netherlands, since Dutch porn sites far outnumber British ones.

The issues become more complex when pornography enters mainstream culture and joins forces with embedded stereotypes of female compliance and desirability as well as of adult male authority and sexual domination. In the context of our entire culture, the moral panic over internet pornography often seems like a deflection from much broader issues. The comparison of teenage pregnancy rates in the UK and the Netherlands shows that respect can be taught even when pornography is part of the complex social mix. One obvious recommendation to promote respect is to extend sexual education far beyond biology, and emphasise its interpersonal context. Another more controversial recommendation is to teach young people how to think about pornography; in particular, they could develop critical tools to link pornographic images to themes of political and social power, to identify the broader context in which others' pain appears pleasurable, and to de-code the thrill of female or child helplessness.

Young people generally shrug off their parents' concern. Only 30 per cent of them are disturbed about "what's out there", compared to 66 per cent of parents. While the risk agenda of parents is focused largely on pornography, young people themselves are more concerned about bullying, identity abuse and racial hatred. So, when parents restrict internet use, awful battles can ensue.

When Cally set up a password to prohibit all online access as a punishment for her 15-year-old son's bad behaviour, she says, "It was effective, but it was painful for everyone". Taking away internet access is like cutting a child off from the centre of their world. Ann notes that with a filter system, Tom "feels left out, because he can't visit the sites his friends do. He says he feels like the most stupid kid in school because he can't be part of the community chat rooms. He says everyone else's parents trust them and asks why I think he can't deal with things as well as his friends. That's a hard one to answer."

"Everyone else's parents let them do this" and "I can deal with things" are familiar phrases to most parents of teens. Some of the teenagers I talked to displayed the innocent hubris common to the risk-oblivious youth. In one breath, Jake assures me that he has never stumbled upon porn sights, and that, if he did, he'd just be a click away from closing it; and in the next breath, he tells me that he and everyone he knows have unwittingly come across porn sites, either with a pop-up box or a disguised link which then won't respond "to the close or minimise click and that can be horrible when your dad walks into the room. He's a real prude, and then he tells mum, and she goes, 'Ooo, those awful people are preying on my little boy, I think the entire world is about to end'."

As teens inch towards independence, they may not want to be reminded that they are vulnerable, and so they are quick to mock parents' fears. Denial is one way of preserving their courage and confidence during a phase of their lives in which they are plagued by self-doubt. Yet most parents also believe there is a point at which "e-safety" restrictions run the risk of impeding a child's creativity and confidence in using the internet.

The psychologist Tanya Byron likens danger on the internet to the danger of crossing the road, which most parents allow teenage children to do on their own. But to many, this analogy is unsatisfactory. "You can see the whole field when you teach a child about road safety," Cally argues. "You can list the dangers, and watch your child doing it himself. You yourself have a great deal of relevant experience. But with the web, they know more than you do – and you don't know what they might find. It's easy to feel helpless, and that's what makes me strict."

Parents keep returning to their lack of knowledge relative to that of their children: "We can't keep track of what's out there," they will often say. What's more, many parents discover that a usually trustworthy child can fail to observe even the basic rules of e-safety – such as "Never give your personal details online", "Never talk to strangers online" and "Tell your parents when you come across inappropriate material".

There is no single recommended approach to addressing young people's internet access. The various strategies adopted by parents arise not simply from individual styles of discipline or the weight they assign to different risks; differences between their children tend to shape parents' approaches, too. Some children are more curious about internet porn than others, and some children are more vulnerable than others, or more obsessive. Hence, Helen sets different rules for Sam, who is more private by nature and more intense than her other sons. Sam has to use the computer in the shared family area, and has no internet access in his room. "This may seem unfair," she admits, "but as a parent, you know your child very well, and the dangers out there may seem more imminent for some children than for others."

One thing's for sure: the internet is here to stay. It has a massive impact – both positive and negative – on our society, and children, curious, creative and quick to learn, are the ones who will carry innovation forwards. Of course, with this useful tool comes new risks of exposure and temptation – to gamble, to talk to strangers, to satisfy sexual curiosity in ways that risk distorting the lessons we would like to teach our children about love and respect. The web facilitates learning and communication, but it also provides distractions from interpersonal activities, exercise and sleep. Today's young people may form the internet generation, but they are still children who grow within and are shaped by relationships of love and care. And it is through these relationships that they seek an understanding of their world. Young people are not passive receivers of material; they, too, can seek ways of resisting social messages that sexualise and confuse them. The challenge is to help them develop this resistance.

Protecting children in our digital age

By Terri Apter

while there is little compelling evidence that porn adversely influences adult behaviour, parents continue to have concerns about the material their children can access on the internet. Here are some practical steps they can take towards restricting what's available:

- Report inappropriate material to the host website
- Require websites to state their e-safety policies before signing up to them
- Report any non-responsive websites to moderators
- Propose to social-networking sites that they have higher default privacy settings for children

For those parents who are comfortable imposing controls, a range of tools is available to manage access to the internet. These include:

- Filtering systems, which block inappropriate material
- Parental monitoring systems

Learn how to use these safety mechanisms yourself – and don't be influenced when your child says, "No one else's parents do this". Above all, educate your children to protect themselves:

- Repeat basic ground rules about not clicking on pop-up sites
- Repeat basic ground rules about not giving personal details online
- Ensure that children know what to do when they have trouble closing an uninvited site
- Talk about what will happen if they break these ground rules
- Pool information within the family: siblings learn a great deal about internet use from one another

Never avoid the issue and try to discuss important topics with children in-depth:

- Explain why you are worried about certain internet material
- Show willingness to talk about even embarrassing things
- Look at everyday images in magazines, newspapers and television with them and explore their implicit messages
- Encourage reflection about whether such people are portrayed with respect, or whether they are objectified
- Listen calmly, and show willingness to hear what your child has to say on these matters

Dr Terri Apter is a psychologist, writer and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her most recent book is 'The Sister Knot'

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