Digital Age Porn: Impact on Teen Relationships

Updated: Sep 8, 2021


A quick internet search or text message on a personal device can offer sexually explicit material to viewers of any age. The ease of accessibility creates a need to look at the effects of exposure to these materials and the impact on their sexual behaviors. Correlations have been made between exposure to digital pornography and the development of teenager’s decision making and reasoning abilities, especially towards sexual behaviors and practices. Research, done by a group of professors from Indiana University led by Zhou (2019), shows there has been a drastic change in the sexual attitudes of teenagers who have been exposed to pornography, compared to their non-exposed counterparts. Teens who have had repeated exposure to pornography are more likely to be promiscuous. They exhibit or even accept violent behaviors in their dating relationships. Zhou’s team noted, teenagers exposed to digital pornography “purely treat[s] sexual contact as physical activity for sexual pleasure but not a representation of romantic love (Zhou et. al. p. 2269-2270).” Are teenagers who are digitally exposed to pornography impairing their social development in regards to intimacy and dating practices?


College professors Megan Maas of Michigan State, Bethany Bray of University of Illinois, and Jennie Noll of Penn State (2019) researched the correlation between exposure to online sexual experiences and the sexual health and wellbeing of teenage girls. In their study there were 514 total participants who completed questionnaires online. These questionnaires were done in 2 waves over 2 years, collecting data from across the United States. Wave data is collected by asking the same questions to the same participants a set amount of times over a certain time frame in order to factor in changes of opinion and understanding of the set time period.


After conducting this research Maas, Bray, and Noll (2019) believe there is a grave lack of longitudinal research in regards to the long-term effects of teen exposure to digital pornography and how it will impact the teen’s over all sexual health in the future. However, they noted many of the teenage girls who were exposed to digital pornography experienced what they call “Sexual Scripting Theory (Maas et. al. p. 844)”. This is a theory that suggests that adolescents exposed to pornography without and understanding of its true intent will use what they observe as a “script” in which to base their sexual health behaviors and practices. These observations seem to strongly suggest a strictly negative effect digital pornography has on teenage girls.

Subjective analysis conducted by Dutch researcher, Morten Birk Hansen Mandau (2020), at the Aarhus University, on the unsought exchange of sexually explicit messages and their reciprocation among adolescents illustrates more social acceptance to the material. These messages, also referred to as sexting or ‘dick pics’ is the exchange of sexually explicit either in text or image format. Mandau’s 2018 study used participants from two Dutch upper secondary schools. A total of twenty-nine young adults, 20 females and 9 males from ages 17–20 who volunteered to be interviewed for the study by Mandau’s associates.

According to his analysis of the interview transcripts, while he remained conscience of individual experiences, he found that receiving unsolicited ‘dick pic’ messages had become the “norm” for the majority (Mandau, para. 11). Mandau furthered his research by dividing the participants of the study into individual focus groups. He then presented them with different queries about the images they sent or received. Through this additional research he concluded the teenage girl participant’s explanation of the nude images as being 'in your face' were comparative to the explanation expressed by individuals in a study which revealed that “girls feel disgust when being inadvertently exposed to pornography by male peers, describing this experience with the phrase: 'It's always just there in your face' (Walker et al., p. 202)”. Though sexting and the sending and receiving of ‘dick pics’ appears to be a normal practice among young adults, it still appears to disgusts girls when the exposure is unsolicited or unexpected.

Having gone a step further than Mandau (2020), Ybarra and Thompson (2018) from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, conducted a study about the ability to predict sexual violence in teens based on their exposure to digital pornography. Similar to the study done by Maas, Bray, and Noll, they collected six waves of data nationally online, between 2006 and 2012, from 1586 youth between 10 and 21 years of age. They were able to assess five types of sexual violence: sexual harassment, sexual assault, coercive sex, attempted rape, and rape. Their findings suggested that several malleable factors, such as participants home life and community involvement, also needed to be evaluated to predict the value of victimization for teens with subsequent involvement of sexual violence. Strongly suggesting that teenagers who have stronger ties to their families, communities, or schools were less likely to act out violently in their sexual behaviors compared to those who did not have strong support systems or community ties (Ybarra & Thompson, p. 412).

Similar to the research done by Ybarra and Thompson (2018), a team of psychologists led by Rostad, et al., (2019), researching for the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the official publication of the International Academy of Sex Research, also found teen dating violence to be elevated in subjects exposed to digital pornography. This study examined the relationship between violent pornography exposure and different forms of teen dating violence (TDV) using data collected from surveys given to 314 high school sophomores who reported being in a dating relationship within the past year.

The analysis of the data performed by Rostad’s (2019) team showed boys who observed digital pornography were three times and girls one and a half times more likely to engage in teen dating violence compared to their non-exposed counterparts (Rostad et. al., para. 28). They also found teenagers who had been exposed to digital pornography who had relationships with their schools, teachers, families, and community were far less likely to engage or experience teen dating violence.

Teenagers exposed to digital pornography struggle to understand the context of the information they receive from the pornography. With no previous exposure to sexual relationships or the mature content of the pornography they are viewing, teenagers struggle to understand how they should interpret the content of the pornography and their feelings towards the pornography. They expose themselves to arousing images with no understanding to the intent of the digital pornography only to perceive it as a guideline or informational versus for entertainment purposes.

When a teenager is left to work through these mature experiences alone, they tend to form a “sexual script” (Maas et. al. 2019) based on the narrative of the digital pornography they were exposed too. This drastically impacts their social awareness, along with their decision making and reasoning skills in regards to their sexual behavior. However, if a teenager has healthy relationships within their family or community it would appear those relationships aid the teen in being able to process the information they observed more clearly and they avoid acting it out inappropriately. This gives hope that even though teenagers have readily available access to digital pornography, a strong support team can better help them understand the mature content and how to process their reactions to the text or images.


References

Maas, M. K., Bray, B. C., & Noll, J. G. (2019). Online Sexual Experiences Predict Subsequent

Sexual Health and Victimization Outcomes Among Female Adolescents: A Latent Class Analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48(5), 837-849. http://dx.doi.org.nuls.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10964-019-00995-3


Mandau, M. B. H. (2020). “Directly in Your Face”: A Qualitative Study on the Sending and

Receiving of Unsolicited “Dick Pics” Among Young Adults. Sexuality & Culture, 24(1), 72–93. https://doi-org.nuls.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s12119-019-09626-2


Rostad, W.L., Gittins-Stone, D., Huntington, C. et al. The Association Between Exposure to Violent Pornography and Teen Dating Violence in Grade 10 High School Students. Arch Sex Behavior 48, 2137–2147 (2019). https://doi-org.nuls.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10508-019-1435-4


Walker S, Temple-Smith M, Higgs P, Sanci L. 'It's always just there in your face': Young

people's views on porn. Sex Health. 2015; 12; 3: 200-206. 10.1071/SH14225

Ybarra, M. L., & Thompson, R. E. (2018). Predicting the Emergence of Sexual Violence in

Adolescence. Prevention Science, 19(4), 403-415. http://dx.doi.org.nuls.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11121-017-0810-4


Zhou, Y., Bryant, P., Malic, V., & Yu, J. (2019). Sexual behavior patterns in online sexually

explicit materials: a network analysis. Quality and Quantity, 53(4), 2253-2271.

http://dx.doi.org.nuls.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11135-019-00869-7

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