December 13, 2022
The percentage of American adolescents who have watched pornography or engaged in sexting – messages containing pictures of nude or seminude people – underscore the need for adults to discuss the risks of these actions, researchers say.
Nearly 25% of adolescents have received a sext message, and 15% have sent one, according to a recent study of 350 students ages 12-17. About 25% have been asked to send one, and 12% have felt pressured by someone to send a sext within the last year.
Adolescents need to know that sending a sext is not a requirement for a romantic relationship, said researcher Amanda Giordano, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. The pictures can be forwarded to others, put online or used as a form of blackmail.
"If your boyfriend, girlfriend or peer is asking for a sext, let's talk through some of the possible risks," Giordano said. "These are conversations that we need to have with adolescents, and they can happen at home or in schools. Adults need to keep up with technology and current trends so that we're not just giving youth access to smartphones and hoping they make wise decisions. We need to prepare them for potential risks."
The study also found that about 50% of adolescents had been exposed to pornography. On average, their first exposure came at 11.5, when most children are in sixth grade. That age is younger than what previous studies have suggested.
More than 30% of adolescents had viewed pornography at least once in the past year. And 8% said they watched it almost every day. Pornography viewing was most common among boys.
The easy access to free internet pornography and children getting smartphones at early ages are likely major contributors to these pornography exposure figures, Giordano said. Research shows that many children get their beliefs about sex from pornography, which can have content that depicts violence and the degradation of women.
"Pornography use has been linked to a range of negative outcomes among children and adolescents," Giordano said. "And pornography is a terrible sex education teacher for kids. However, for children who haven't had conversations about healthy sexuality, they might not have anything to compare it to."
Other studies also have warned about the dangers of sexting and pornography. Research has found sexting can increase the risk of online victimization, including sextortion and cyberbullying. One analysis found that adolescent sexting is linked to sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, lack of contraception use, internalizing problems, delinquent behavior and substance use. Many of these connections are stronger among younger adolescents.
The American Psychological Association has raised concerns about the links between pornography exposure and sexual abuse, and between pornography and sex trafficking.
The sexualization of women is another negative outcome of these activities, the Australian Psychological Society says. Sexualization – deriving a person's only value from their sexual appeal or behavior – can lead to self-objectification, eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression among young women.
Pediatric experts recommend parents and schools provide adolescents with an adequate sex education and the right tools to critique information so they understand that pornography doesn't reflect reality.
Schools also need to have sexting policies in place to help safeguard students, Giordano said.
"It's important for schools to have a sexting policy already in place so when a student comes to a school counselor or a teacher and says, 'I just got this picture,' or 'This person's asking me for this picture,' they will already know what to do," Giordano said. "Schools need to have conversations with legal counsel about what the sexting policy should look like in their state given the child pornography laws, so they already know how they will respond."
Parents who are concerned that their children may be addicted to porn, are advised to talk to a pediatrician about the best way to help them. Signs of a pornography addiction include social isolation and disinterest in hanging out with friends, depression or sudden changes in mood, increased secrecy and sexually explicit language and drawings.