A few years ago, Eustacia Cutler, Temple Grandin’s mother, wrote an article about autism and pornography that generated a lot of discussion in the public media. Ms. Cutler explained some of her ideas in a short interview that can be accessed on YouTube. Other writers have acknowledged this disturbing problem calling it a toxic secret and emphasizing the trouble that pornography and misdirected sexuality may cause. Porn is a major problem in our society. This blog discusses the problem of internet pornography and why children appear to be more vulnerable to the damaging consequences of the same. Some helpful advice for families, as well as pertinent references, are linked in the text or provided at the end of the blog.
Several decades ago magazines were the main purveyors of pornography; nowadays it is available to anybody with a computer. Indeed, Playboy took nude photography off its issues for one buttoned-up year as computers flooded users with freely available sexualized images. Pornsites get more views than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. Thirty percent of all the data that is transferred through the internet is porn. Globally porn is a 97 billion dollar industry, 10-12 billions of which is coming from the Unites States.
Seventy percent of men and 30% of women watch porn. If asked, 43% of men and 9% of women watched porn last week. One of the most popular search terms in porn sites is “teen”. It was the #1 search term in 2014, #2 in 2015, and #4 in 2016. In the latter year “teen” fell behind front runners: lesbian, MILF and step mom. For teenagers, less than 18 years old, 90% of boys and 60% of girls have seen porn. On average a kid is 8-11 years old when they first encounter porn. Symantec’s study of children online revealed the word “porn” ranked as the fourth most popular search word for children aged 7 and younger and was in the top 5 words Googled by children under 18. Forty two percent of youth internet users 10 to 17 years of age saw porn in the past year. In about two thirds of them, the exposure was unwanted. Preteen boys, youth who use file-sharing programs, and those who view the internet at friends’ homes are at higher risk of unwanted exposure. Having delinquent tendencies seems to be a factor in wanted exposure (there is a link between rule-breaking behavior and underlying tendency for sensation seeking).
Why is the adolescent brain so vulnerable to porn? The teenage brain reward center response is 2-4X more powerful than that of an adult brain. The consequent “high” makes the experience more desirable and, possibly, helps to hardwire the behavior. During adolescence, unused brain cell connections are pruned away while frequently used connections are strengthened. When teens learn to associate arousal with pornography those pathways strengthen at the expense of others connecting arousal to actual people and real life experiences. Moreover, some depressed youth might seek this means of arousal by online pornography as a way of relieving their uneasiness or generalized dissatisfaction with life. Indeed, every time that they watch porn it may be like having a new partner, somebody new. They can thus imagine interactions that are not possible in real life.
Society grooms children for early sexualization. Little girls wear pink t-shirts with the label, “I am Too Pretty to do Math” (see figure below). Toys (e.g., dolls) are sexualized, teaching to value appearance more than anything else. Misguided efforts at publicity seeking guided the sexualization of young girls in the popular reality show “Toddlers and Tiaras”. In an article written by Melissa Henson for CNN, she wrote,
“In what was likely a misguided effort to gin up publicity and ratings for the show, TLC released footage of a 3-year-old contestant dressed as the prostitute played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 film “Pretty Woman.” This stupidity came just one week after TLC — still known to many as The Learning Channel — was forced to pull its Facebook page because of the deluge of negative comments over an episode that featured a little girl dressed up to look like Dolly Parton, complete with padded bust and buttocks….Common sense is all too often a casualty of the media culture we live in. Parents assume the sexual content and innuendo in the programming they are watching will go over their child’s head, or think it’s cute to dress their child in sexy clothes or encourage her to imitate Beyonce’s dance moves so they can post it on YouTube. In reality, they are teaching their children what kind of behavior will help them get noticed.”
Gail Dines gave a TEDx talk Growing up in a pornified culture. The same can be accessed through YouTube. The lecture illustrates how society bombards otherwise unsuspecting people with powerful sexualized images that procreate a public health crisis of the digital age.
Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Commisioner of England reported a study on the sexual exploitation of children. The same revealed that 2,409 children were victims of sex crimes by gangs or group of men in a 14-month period from 2010 to 2011. A further 16,500 children/adolescents displayed high risk signs of exploitation. Risk indicators included children who ran away, exhibited drug/alcohol abuse, and criminality. It said many perpetrators of crime were 12 or 13, who saw rape as “normal and inevitable”. It also reported that bullying and a sexist attitude permeated the country.
Sex trafficking survivors claim that they were forced to watch porn for hours as a means of desensitization and training. Twenty percent of online porn is made by trafficked girls. Porn has an influence on body image and sexual confidence. It is common for adolescents to perceive their own bodies as inadequate. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery states that 400 girls 18 and younger had labiaplasty in 2015, an 80 percent increase over the prior year. Girls 18 years of age and younger account for less than 2% of all cosmetic surgery but almost 5% of all labiaplasties. The increase demand among adolescents for these procedures prompted the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to release the following statement, “Adolescents often desire to improve physical conditions that, if left uncorrected, may affect them into adulthood or that they perceive as flawed. This age group may be under particular stress regarding these issues because of societal conceptions of the ideal female body and parental concerns for body perfection. Although reconstructive procedures aimed at correction of abnormalities (caused by congenital defects, trauma, infection, or disease) or cosmetic procedures performed to reshape normal structures may improve function, appearance, and self-esteem, not all adolescents are suited for surgical intervention. Appropriate counseling and guidance of adolescents with these concerns require a comprehensive and thoughtful approach, special knowledge of normal physical and psychosocial growth and development, and assessment of the physical maturity and emotional readiness of the patient.”
Physicians taking care of pediatric populations should ask them about problems relating to pornography. Probably a useful way of initiating an inquiry would be to ask how much time do they spend daily with entertainment media and whether there is a TV set with internet access in their bedroom? If there is a perceived problem, some advice for families include:
- 1 hour of physical activity each day
- 8-12 hours of sleep each night
- No devices in bedrooms (TVs, computers, smartphones)
- No screen time 1 hour before bed.
- Discourage entertainment media while doing homework
- Designate media-free times
- Designate media-free locations (example bedrooms)
- Communicate guidelines to other caregivers
- Engage in selecting and co-viewing media with your child
- Communicate regularly about online citizenship and safety (never post private information), never take pictures of yourself and post them
- No bullying (teach them to recognize when it is happening)
- Respect privacy of others
- Develop a network of trusted adults
Institute a media use plan: Go to www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUse Plan and outline the following:
- Screen free zones
- Screen free times
- Device Curfews and changing locations
- Chose what videos, games, apps, etc are OK
- Identifies what can be gained by decreasing screen time
- More time for exercise and reading
- Media manners, e.g., it is not polite to use a device when talking with someone
- Digital citizenship
- Safety rules
- Attend law enforcement presentations about internet safety (youth may pay more attention or give more weight to information provided by law enforcement)
Parents should anticipate exposure, it is inevitable within our society. They should talk about it (not just one conversation but an ongoing dialogue). Some useful guidelines for the conversation are provided in an article entitled, “10 Conversations to have with your kids about porn”. Some useful points that serve as a springboard towards a useful dialogue with your adolescent children include:
- Curiosity is normal
- Seeing and even looking at it doesn’t make you a bad person
- Once you see it, you can’t unsee it
- When you saw it, how did it make you feel? Be prepared to listen.Trying to hide it from me doesn’t do you any good.
- What can you say to remove yourself from watching it with friends.-an opportunity to rehearse what to say.
- It is not a “how to” lesson.
- It can affect how you feel about your body.
- Porn desensitizes you when it comes to violence.
- It can become addictive and affect your own sexual function.
Casanova MF, Solursh D, Solursh L, Roy E, Thigpen L: The history of child pornography on the internet. J Sex Education and Therapy, 25(4):245-251, 2000.