At the RACGP annual conference this year (GP19) Dr Anita Elias spoke eloquently and persuasively about the psychological impact of young people’s access to, and use of, online pornography. It is no longer just a speculative idea based on clinical anecdotes. Research evidence confirms that viewing pornography at a young age is having a significant and damaging impact on young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviours and their emotional states.
The difficulty of managing children’s internet use, for parents and practitioners, extends way beyond pornography, but it could be argued that pornography is the most personally dangerous and socially threatening of the web based-influences that our children encounter – partly because it is almost always consumed in secret where we cannot influence the way its messages are received.
So, what damage can porn do?
In her talk Dr Elias gave many examples of the sorts of damage we might see that is likely to be related to children and adolescent’s use of pornography; girls and boys with distress about the appearance of their bodies including their genitals, requests for surgical correction of perceived abnormalities, concerns about sexual performance when it does not live up to the pornographic ideal and avoidance of sexual activity for fear of not meeting the expectations of others. Most worrying are the young women who feel they must indulge in sexual practices that are not attractive to them, or even that they find painful or distasteful, because young men brought up on a diet of porn and depictions of women apparently enjoying pain expect that of women in real life.
The extreme consequences of porn exposure
It has often been argued that just because you see it in the movies and in pornography it does not mean you are going to go out and do it.
I’ve been ruminating recently about one particularly horrifying example of porn addiction that led to the rape and murder of Euridice Dixon in Melbourne in 2018. Euridice’s killer, James Todd, is a young man with a seriously dysfunctional family background, a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and a history of addiction to snuff porn (that’s where an individual dies or is killed at the end of the sexual encounter). Todd was reported to have commented on the day after the crime that he was disappointed because the experience wasn’t as good as he thought it was going to be.
Most kids who are looking at porn aren’t going to become rapists and murderers, but all of them are likely to develop unrealistic expectations of sex.
What can we do?
Strictly limiting internet access for younger children with a zero-tolerance policy for pornography before puberty is a starting point, but we need to do much more. The research shows that by 13 or 14 most young people will have viewed pornography. If we want them to understand that pornography is not real sex, we need to start earlier. Discussion about pornography needs to be incorporated into sex education prior to puberty.
Cyra Fernandes from the Australian Childhood Foundation and Russ Pratt from Prime Forensic Pathology have developed a model they call the Savvy Consumer Model that may be helpful to you in your work and your parenting. You can read about the model in a blog post they wrote recently for ATSA.
Free internet pornography is probably not going to go away. That’s why we need to all work towards disempowering it for the sake of all our children.