“Porn is Tearing This Family Apart:” How porn affects teen development

F or many, the idea of teens watching porn stirs up fears that exposure will leave the adolescent viewers worse off–mere wayward husks of their once-productive selves with no prospect of someday becoming contributing members of society. That fear is interesting for a lot of reasons, one of which being that you can’t quite put your finger on what it is about porn that leads to the viewer’s demise.

In theory, you could wrangle up a focus group of concerned adults, asking them to identify the most destructive aspect of erotica, and would likely wind up with responses so varied, that identifying the real culprit would be an exercise in futility on par with a Rocky-style “capture the chicken” training session.

Disagreements surrounding the root of the issue aside, most would find common ground in the belief that a planted seed of porn consumption could blossom into untold developmental issues for the teenager in question. But how accurate is that belief? Does porn actually erode teen social development?

The Research

I n 2004, Gustavo Mesch, an Israeli sociology professor, conducted a study that used a sample of nearly 1000 Israelis aged 13-18 to look at links between internet exposure among adolescents and their social bonds. To do this, Mesch interviewed teens in their homes, asking them to answer questions about their attitudes towards school, relationships, and overall internet use. More specifically, the students were asked to use a 5-point scale to estimate the frequency with which they accessed porn while also indicating–if porn wasn’t their primary incentive for internet use–what sorts of activities they used the internet for, and for how long.

By getting a feel for hours committed to internet activity–porn or otherwise–researchers could establish a baseline that would help them link different types of internet use and tendencies towards other beliefs and behavioral patterns. Those behaviors included:

  • violence (aggression, cursing, hitting at school);
  • religiosity (whether or not student attended a religious school);
  • commitment to family (self-assessment of relationship to parents and feelings of closeness);
  • pro-social attitudes (how important students thought it was to obey the law, help others, be loyal to friends, etc.); and
  • attitudes towards school (whether or not school is worthwhile, and teachers are viewed as role models).

The study revealed that teens that routinely accessed porn differed in a few ways from those that used the internet for information, social communication, or entertainment purposes. Teens that used the internet just for porn tended to be less socially-integrated and more isolated. They expressed less commitment to their families, less pro-social attitudes, and less interest in school than their counterparts who did not use the internet for that purpose.

Though you surely already know this, it’s worth iterating that correlation in no way implies causation. We have no way of knowing–from this study–whether kids are deviant because they watch porn, whether they seek out porn because they’re already deviant, or some combination of the two.

Mesch acknowledged as much in the footnotes of his study, stating, “Causality does not concern this paper and I believe that aggressive attitudes and behavior are not a result of pornography. The interest in this study is in testing the hypothesis that social similarities exist between consumers of internet pornography and participants in deviant behavior in general.

Disclaimers aside, Mesch’s wasn’t the only study to reveal links between students that reported regularly seeking out internet erotica and those engaging in deviant activities at school. A few years later, in fact, another study surveyed 256 adolescent males with a history of sexual criminal behavior in order to examine the relationship between early exposure to porn and a slew of less-than-desirable personality constructs, such as hostile masculinity and paedophilia.

What was cool about the study is that it looked at past events and their future implications in one fell swoop. It explored the role of being exposed to porn–as well as physical abuse, male sexual abuse, and violence–at an early age in relation to delinquency down the line. At the same time, the study used the identification of negative personality constructs and the teen’s exposure to the aforementioned elements as a predictive tool in determining why each of the males became sex offenders later on.

Put another way, if someone was exposed to violence and porn prior to age 13, the study sought to determine how much the exposure to violence was to blame for character issues, as well as how much both the violence and the porn were to blame for the teen’s eventual delinquency.

What the study found was that there is a relationship between early exposure to porn and antisocial behavior… just not nearly as strong as the one that exists between other factors that are presumably out of the child’ control.

For example, psychopathic and antagonistic attitudes–measured by a series of scales gauging things like impulsiveness, rule-breaking behavior, and other factors–were, to some extent, brought about by exposure to porn (beta=0.16), but were influenced twice as strongly by exposure to violence (beta=0.31).

Developmental effects teens of watching porn

Another measure, revisiting the focus of Mesch’s study, looked at psychosocial deficits, which examine the degree to which teens report feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and social isolation. On this measure, early exposure to porn was found to be the leading contributor, but only narrowly, with early physical abuse and sexual victimization by older males nearly identical in their role of increasing such deficits in a male teen.

Still, the impact of early exposure to porn on teen behavior shouldn’t be routinely dismissed. Citing the 1970s research of famed social learning theory psychologist Albert Bandura, the study’s architects proposed that a lot of times, kids that are exposed to this kind of violent and, in the interest of this discussion, sexual content, end up modeling the behavior. This is especially true when what the child sees reinforces what’s known as an adaptive strategy. An adaptive strategy, since you asked, is really nothing more than the way you or I respond to our life circumstances from an evolutionary perspective.

Let’s say that a person’s childhood is particularly unstable. They’re surrounded by violence or other developmental hazards, perhaps are the victims of sexual or physical abuse, and generally, don’t benefit from a consistent thread of safety in their early formative years. These kinds of surroundings often provide unconscious cues to the developing child that they may not enjoy a particularly long life. Yeah– heavy AF. Because of this, the child is forced to make an evolutionary judgment call between what’s known as a “fast life” or “slow life history strategy,” wherein they pick between investing more resources in reproducing or surviving, respectively.

Assuming they pick the fast life strategy, they resort to sexually and socially deviant behavior, which is a roundabout way of saying that if you had a fucked up childhood and watch porn–especially the violent variety– it’s not implausible that you’ll replicate what you see later on as a teenager. Again though, as the diagram above indicates, a lot of stars need to align in order for that kind of outcome to become even remotely possible.

While not the most unhealthy biscuit in the basket, porn also isn’t something to be ignored entirely.

So, as it relates to adolescent development, the role that porn plays is a bit more complex than it may appear. It would be irresponsible to say that porn has an overwhelming impact on a teen’s social life or the extent to which a child is behaviorally unstable because we know that there are tons of other factors that contribute to the sexual or social deviance of a minor. What’s more, even the most damning psych study, which highlighted as part of its conclusion the relation between adolescents that consume large quantities of porn and adolescents that engage in deviant behavior, acknowledged the belief that the former probably doesn’t cause the latter. This, however, doesn’t exonerate porn completely.

There’s ample evidence that early exposure to erotica can contribute directly or indirectly to any number of detrimental character traits, ranging from low self-esteem to aggression, which when paired with external factors, can adversely impact a child’s social integration. While not the most unhealthy biscuit in the basket, porn also isn’t something to be ignored entirely.

In a perfect world, we’d find a way to keep a very specific substrate of porn out of the hands of a very specific substrate of teens. But this is porn we’re talking about here. You’d have a hard time keeping this stuff out of the hands of an elbow-down amputee. Acknowledging that there are other factors, like exposure to violence or sexual abuse, whose influence on teen development is decidedly more pronounced than porn’s is probably a good place to start in reconsidering what’s important here. Moreover, doing so allows us to suss out the not-so-good bits of porn content and stop chasing that chicken through the alley by Rocky’s house.

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