Several years ago, researchers Wolak, Mitchell, and Finkelhor published a highly disturbing article in Pediatrics magazine about youth exposure to online pornography which highlighted its effects on youth aged 10 to 17. Very few kids or young teens find their way into my office, but I’m beginning to see more and more young adults who started early and now struggle with the compulsion to watch online porn. According to Wolak and his colleagues, “rates of unwanted exposure to sexual material among youth increased from 25% to 44% from 1999 to 2006, despite similar increases in the use of protective filtering software over that period.”
Now think about what has happened in the last five years – high-speed internet access has come to hand-held devices that are present in most homes and carried by many young teens! It took a long time to download images through a dial-up connection, providing a buffer from both accidental exposures and repeated and prolonged exposure to sexually-explicit material. Then came “home movies” streaming on YouTube, and live footage being broadcast via webcams. A 25-year-old client told me last week that he “cut his teeth” on these latter images – “I knew it was real people having real exciting sexual hook-ups – better than I would ever have.” Now sexual material can be available immediately in the palm of your hand.
The developing brain is highly susceptible to trauma, drug abuse, and the powerful feelings that sex arouses. Like nicotine, alcohol, and drugs, sexual (even fantasy) exposure among teens is more likely to produce abuse/dependence than adult-onset use. Watching internet sexual images can encourage young people to view others as mere sexual objects – like the virtual images they watched repeatedly on the screen – and so negatively impact the development of future healthy intimate relationships.
Often men that I work with tell me that they’ve become “bored” with sexual encounters with their spouses. One man summarized his boredom quite succinctly: “she can’t measure up to the hotties that I’m finding online!”
This kind of raised male expectation began long before the internet. A presenter at a conference I attended last month showed fascinating images of Playboy magazine covers, beginning mid-century when the publication began. For quite a while, the women actually resembled women that you might recognize. Then poses changed, clothing became scantier and scantier, lips were parted to reveal the tongue, and cleavage increased. With the advent of air brushing, body shape and size were subtly changed and these idealized sex partners became super-human. No real woman can measure up!
In the same workshop we also viewed TV commercials spanning 60 years, which also up-sell male expectations of female appearance and behavior. But magazines and television can’t begin to compare to the intensity and immediacy of online pornography.
Repeated exposure to online porn ratchets up the risk for youngsters viewing this stuff today. Given that our brains are biologically predisposed to experience sexual encounters as rewarding, premature exposure to sexually-explicit material can function in the same way as early exposure to highly potent, addictive drugs, putting young people at higher risk for the development of sexual addiction.
Wolak and his researchers also note that children who are exposed to pornographic material may be harassed or sexually solicited online. This means that finding sex on the internet could lead to much more than unwanted exposure.
If you find yourself or someone you care about in this article, know that help is available. Look for a counselor or clinician who is a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT). These professionals have the training and experience to guide people through the morass that destroys relationships and keeps people isolated. Check www.familysafemedia.com for online screening devices that go way beyond Net Nanny.
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