Issue 19 / 21 May 2012

HEALTH experts say doctors, parents and schools have a crucial role to play in minimising the negative effects of internet pornography on adolescents.

Their comments  follow the publication of an editorial in the MJA that draws on the latest evidence to show how an explosion in the use of sexually explicit online content by young people is affecting their health. (1)

The editorial authors — Dr Rebecca Guy and Professor John Kaldor, both from the Sexual Health Program at the University of NSW, and Professor George Patton, from the Centre for Adolescent Health at the University of Melbourne — said adolescents were now more easily able to engage with pornography than ever before, both by choice and inadvertently. They referred to a comprehensive Australian survey that showed that 28% of 9–16-year-olds had seen sexual material online.

The authors said cross-sectional studies had demonstrated a strong relationship between internet exposure to sexually explicit material and sexual behaviour that predisposed adolescents to adverse sexual and mental health outcomes, including sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy and engagement in aggressive or violent sexual practices.

However, they said sex education and open discussion of sexual matters within schools and families assisted young people in decision making, and did not increase the likelihood of earlier engagement in sex.

“Therefore, a continuing emphasis on these prevention strategies should serve as a counter to new pressures that internet exposure may be exerting on young people’s decision making”, they wrote.

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a child and adolescent psychologist, said software was available to help restrict children’s exposure to explicit content, but stressed that it needed to be augmented with actual monitoring and supervision.

Dr Carr-Gregg said he was concerned that pornography normalised multiple partners and unsafe sexual practices.

“But the most damaging lesson of all that our children take from pornography is that sex has nothing to do with intimacy or love.

“Given the hundreds of studies linking TV violence to real-life violence over the past 30 years, it would be naive to believe that porn has no effect”, he said.

Dr Michael Flood, a sociologist at the University of Wollongong, said pornography had some potential benefits, such as teaching young people about their bodies and sexual practice and was associated with the liberalising of young people’s sexual attitudes.

However, he said, in isolation, pornography offered poor sexual education as it taught nothing about negotiating consent, it largely neglected condom use and provided no insight into intimacy and relationships.

“For me, the biggest concern is that pornography use makes it more likely that young men will condone sexual violence and perpetrate it themselves”, he said.

Dr Melissa Kang, a senior lecturer in general practice at Westmead Hospital’s clinical school, said any research on sexual behaviour and attitudes should be viewed within its cultural context.

Emerging interest in sexual experimentation, increased sexual arousal and attraction, and entering romantic and sexual relationships were normal in young people, she said.

Public concern about pornography was, broadly speaking, a moral issue “with the clear proviso that sexual violence and gender-based violence is unacceptable — morally and in every way”.

“Australian society has enormous difficulty being open with young people about sexuality and sexual development and so an upside is that concern about exposure to porn may force more dialogue about this between adults, between adults and young people, and between parents and their adolescent children”, Dr Kang said.

Because doctors were considered the most credible source of information about sexual health by young people, they had a huge opportunity to positively influence sexual development and health, she said.

Doctors should explain to young people their right to confidential consultations about contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted disease.

– Amanda Bryan

1. MJA 2012; 196: 546-547

Posted 21 May 2012

4 thoughts on “Health risks for kids online

  1. RayT says:

    I am a social conservative in some ways, and inclined to think there are many things children are exposed to that lead them to consider aberrant behaviours normal.
    1. Pornography, mainly on line.
    2. Violence, on line and in games, in the media and movies, and in some sport.
    3. Un-policed public drunkenness in city streets, mainly near venues.
    (It is hard to condemn drug use while alcohol abuse and consequent violence is tolerated/ignored.)

  2. FC says:

    Every adult Australian has a social responsibility to protect children from the internet. Internet providers should offer “family friendly” internet options where pornographic/violent websites are filtered at the level of the provider. We don’t allow children access to alcohol and drugs. Why are we are allowing them access to an unfiltered internet? The exposure to porn will affect these children for the rest of their lives in every way. I think it’s potentially more damaging than occasional alcohol and drug use. Once the mind is poisoned, it’s very hard to fix.

  3. Dr. T says:

    One of the problems is that the current crop of “experts” on these matters, such as those quoted above, hold their own ideological stance which is then taught as fact, with extremely poor quality studies cherry picked to support the current trends. The issue about pornography is only one element of a general societal shift in behaviour in children and teens, where they are increasingly exposed to adult concepts before they are developmentally ready, ie from 3 year olds copying the “sexy” moves on music videos featuring barely clad women to 11 year olds viewing pornography, to increasing numbers of sexually active early teens. Is this a health problem as well as a moral issue? The above study seems to suggest it is and with a young daughter I certainly have my concerns.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Access to explicit sexual material is not only available online, it is also available in the local gas station or newsagent, cable tv, in the mall. There are many ways that influence children and adults. The internet is the 21st century version of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Software to restrict exposure? Oh dear not another burning of books!

    It takes a village to raise a child, we all have the social and moral responsibility to nurture and protect children and teenagers. Including ourselves. Sexually explicit scenes? Violence? Racial, sexual, religious intolerance and discrimination? With every right there is a corresponding responsibility.

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