Cover Story

Finding pornography on the Internet is as easy as Googling the word "sex," as the 40 million Americans who visit porn Web sites each year can attest. Critics worry about online pornography's effects on adults' work and family lives, but even more about its impact on children and teens.

Despite the handwringing, however, only a handful of investigators have examined the validity of these concerns. Many are reluctant to explore the topic, thanks to its morally loaded nature, the methodological challenges of Web pornography's effects on children studying an underage population, and the difficulty in showing whether exposure to online porn actually changes sexual attitudes and behavior.

"We need a lot more research to keep tabs on this phenomenon and to separate hype from reality," says sociologist David Finkelhor, PhD, director of the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) Crimes Against Children Research Center and a lead researcher in the area. To give the issue some perspective, his team has examined a variety of social trend indicators during the time that concerns about Internet use among the young have risen--between 1996 and 2005--and found that teens are actually displaying healthier behaviors in domains that might be negatively influenced by greater access to Internet porn.

"There have been drops in crime, drops in teen pregnancy, increases in the number of kids who say they're virgins, declines in various kinds of victimization and less running away," Finkelhor says. "You have to hold that image on one hand as you're confronting all of the things that are happening online."

That said, a few studies are beginning to show relationships between Web porn use among young people and sexual attitudes. For example, those who frequent porn sites more often are more likely to view sex as a purely physical function and to view women as sex objects. They're also more likely to hold such views if they perceive the material as more realistic, research finds.

Who is affected?

Each year about 40 percent of teens and preteens visit sexually explicit sites either deliberately or accidentally, studies here and abroad show. In a study in the February Pediatrics (Vol. 119, No. 2, pages 247-257), for example, attorney Janis Wolak, psychologist Kimberly Mitchell, PhD, and Finkelhor, of the UNH center, found that 42 percent of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 Internet users ages 10 to 17 had been exposed to online porn in the last year, with two-thirds reporting only unwanted exposure. In fact, the incidence of unwanted exposure has risen for this age group, from about 26 percent between 1999 and 2000, to 34 percent in 2005, the team has found.

Perhaps not surprisingly, boys are much more likely to seek out pornography than girls, and use increases with age, research finds. In the UNH team's study, for instance, 38 percent of 16- and 17-yea-rold male Internet users deliberately visited X-rated sites in the past year, compared with 8 percent of girls. Similarly, Australian sociologist Michael Flood, PhD, of La Trobe University, reported in the March issue of the Journal of Sociology (Vol. 43, No. 1, pages 45-60) that 38 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls ages 16 and 18 deliberately accessed such material.

Teens' sexual attitudes

Because all published studies about the influence of Internet porn on teen attitudes are correlational, researchers can't say for sure whether access to Internet porn causes certain attitudes and behaviors, emphasizes Jochen Peter, PhD, a communications researcher at the University of Amsterdam. But he and colleague Patti M. Valkenburg, PhD, are finding some intriguing links.

In one study surveying 471 Dutch teens ages 13 to 18, the researchers found that the more often young people sought out online porn, the more likely they were to have a "recreational" attitude toward sex--specifically, to view sex as a purely physical function like eating or drinking.

In the study, reported in the December 2006 Journal of Communication (Vol. 56, No. 4, pages 639-660), the team also found a relationship between porn use and the feeling that it wasn't necessary to have affection for people to have sex with them. Boys were much more likely to hold these views than girls, and they tended to hold these attitudes more strongly when they perceived the material as realistic, the team found.

In a related study in the March issue of Sex Roles (Vol. 56, No. 5/6, pages 381-395), the Dutch team found a link between the type and explicitness of sexual media the teens saw and their tendency to view women as sexual "play things." The more explicit the material viewed, the more likely young people were to see women in these ways--and Internet movie porn was the only media type to show a statistically significant relationship, they found.

Another study not yet finalized will likely add more rigor to the way such variables are measured. Emory University health psychologist Ralph J. DiClemente, PhD, and colleagues are using high-tech software to capture which and how many sex Web sites 560 young people access over 16 months. The team also will survey the teens every two months on their sexual attitudes, onset of sexual behavior and frequency of sexually risky behavior.

Proactive parenting

Most likely, many factors can buffer young people from online pornography's negative effects, say researchers.

Psychologist and technology researcher Larry Rosen, PhD, of California State University, Dominguez Hills, is looking at one such shield: parents. In an as-yet-unpublished study, he found that young people's actions on MySpace--including looking at others' risqué poses, displaying their own and tapping into porn links--are strongly influenced by parenting styles.

His team asked parents and young people to rate the way parents monitored young people's computer use, dividing parents into four categories: authoritative, combining warmth and control; authoritarian, melding control and low warmth; indulgent, displaying warmth and low control; and neglectful, combining low warmth and low control.

Authoritative and authoritarian parents were much more likely than indulgent or neglectful ones to limit their youngsters' use of MySpace, for example by keeping tabs on their children's MySpace pages and requiring them to keep the computer in family rooms, the team found. In turn, the teens appeared to internalize those messages by, for example, not looking at suggestive poses of fellow MySpace users as much as those with indulgent or neglectful parents.

"Basically you're looking at clear, obvious differences in parenting styles, even in what kids see on MySpace," says Rosen (see "Creating a space for MySpace"). "These kids have rules, and they're following those rules."

Protect or educate?

It's too early to say what these findings mean--or even what to do if clearer results are shown. Some, for example, believe that being sexually curious is part of the developmental process and that Internet porn is one, albeit problematic, way to satisfy that curiosity. And it may prove nearly impossible to completely prevent it, says Peter.

"When teenagers are old enough to be interested in sex, they are competent enough to find ways to access Internet porn," says Peter. Hence, "our research is motivated by educating young people rather than protecting them," he says.

For example, one databased educational effort could be to counsel teens that online porn "is one very specific notion of sex and sexuality, and may not correspond with what they, and most adults, experience in their sex lives," he says.

Others, though, suspect that frequent exposure may erode young people's ability to see the opposite sex in a wholesome way.

"We don't really know, but we suspect that exposure to, say, 10, 20, 30,000 pages of pornography may bias a young person in terms of what they consider a normal relationship," says DiClemente, who says it will be up to policymakers and parents to decide what to do if that turns out to be the case.

What is clear to researchers, though, is the need for more research. Their wish list includes a more detailed look at the effects of online pornography on young people under a range of exposure and family conditions, more longitudinal studies and a closer look at how inadvertent exposure may affect the young.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.