Don’t Worry, the Kids Are Alright
A discussion on why young people watch porn, and the effects of pornography on children and adolescents' mental health, relationships, and sexual behavior.
Sometimes when browsing Twitter, content from an account called Libs of Tik Tok, a conservative-ran account dedicated to questionably interpreted content, pops up on my feed and oftentimes shows an individual or group saying some stuff that the account deems bad. However, a few days ago, they posted a video claiming that New Jersey’s school curriculum “…are telling 9-year-olds to watch porn. Groomers.” The video can be seen down below.
For readers who have cleaned their ears recently, did you notice something that’s not quite adding up when looking at what the account claimed the video said and what the video itself said? If you guessed “the video didn’t tell kids to watch porn”, then bingo! You’re smarter than not only Libs of Tik Tok, but also most of the comments in that thread.
The video is telling kids that watching porn is normal, so watching it shouldn’t make you feel bad — especially since pornography consumption has a stigma surrounding it — but it’s also not realistic, so don’t base your actual sexual experiences off pornographic videos. This seems not only like a healthy way to talk about porn to young children, but also tackles the stigma surrounding pornography consumption. However, and unsurprisingly, most people couldn’t understand this and assumed they were telling kids to go out and watch porn and this is bad because porn is harmful. Even yours truly got into multiple arguments. Because of this, I wanted to write this article discussing the effects of pornography consumption on children, and why we shouldn't worry about kids watching porn, at least in terms of the effects it could have.
Porn Is the New Sex Ed
Before we can really discuss the effects of porn on children, we should talk about why kids watch pornography. In a systemic review (k = 10) by Litsou et al. (2021), it was found that the most prevalent theme of pornography consumption among young people was due to learning about how to have sex. As the paper notes,
The most prevalent theme concerned young people’s use of pornography as a source of information to learn ‘how to have sex’. The articles frequently mentioned that inadequate sexual education and lack of sexual information about the mechanics of sex led people to engage with pornography. Pornography was mentioned by participants within these studies as being used for learning about sexual performance, positions and roles
Pornography was used as a way to learn how to masturbate, have sex, and learn about sexual roles. Since formal sex education was lacking, according to the participants in the analyzed study, pornography instead was used as a form of sex education. If conservatives truly do not want young people watching porn to learn about sex, then support better sex education — if you don’t, then don’t be surprised when young people turn to pornography since their current sex education is lacking.
Of course, one counter might be that “young people [or children, or whatever] shouldn’t be learning how to have sex in the first place”, and pushing this is considered pedophilia. Take the example Tweet down below.
Whenever I read stuff like this, I always think of the romantic childhood model seen in children’s literature. This model portrays children as innocent, uncorrupted by the outside world, and walking little angels on earth. One would assume this is how some conservatives view children, especially since they think children aren’t sexually “corrupted.” While this is all fine and dandy in fantasy land, this is not how life is. Whether some conservatives like it or not, the reason it’s so important to discuss sexuality with young people, children, etc., is because children know what sexuality is and are curious about sex itself.
As discussed in McKee (2010), children engage in masturbation, ask their parents about sex at the age of 5, engage in sexual activities with other children, show their genitals to other children, and try to look at people undressing and nude pictures. These findings were not only found after the explosion of the internet but even before it! Thus, the child's sexual development discussed in McKee is independent of the recent moral panic surrounding discussions of sexuality in schools and James Lindsey’s annoying “Okay Groomer!”
Because child sexual development clearly shows that the romantic childhood model is incorrect, this is why it’s important to discuss sexuality with children. It promotes positive sexual health and offers a guide on how to navigate sexuality, and one of these navigations is related to porn itself. In fact, the video in question posted by Libs of Tik Tok promotes positive sexual health by informing its reader that “Hey! Porn isn’t real, so don’t assume your sexual experiences are gonna be like this!”
Another program to support is pornography literacy classes. In a small sample of 24 youths between the ages of 15 and 24, a pretest-posttest design found that teaching individuals about pornography, healthy relationships, and the unrealistic sexual scripts shown in pornography, led them to see pornography as unrealistic and a bad way to learn about sex (Rothman et al. 2018). Sex education and porn literacy classes would greatly benefit young people, including children, about positive sexual health instead of porn itself.
A review of the literature on the effects of sex education on school-aged individuals, which includes people in grades below middle school, found that sex education led to be associated with better partner violence prevention, better communication understanding in relationships, how to have healthy relationships, sexual discover skills and behavior, and better media literacy (Goldfarb and Lieberman 2020).
If you’re gonna get mad about people wanting to teach sexuality to a population that already shows sexual acts among some of its people, then support sex education or porn literacy classes, or both for that matter, instead of just getting mad.
Furthermore, young people hitting puberty predict pornography consumption! I know, crazy, right?! As children age, some hit puberty earlier than others, and watch pornography. Pirrone et al. (2020) porn viewing by youths is predicted by puberty for both males and females.
Therefore, not only are children aware of sexuality and engage in sexual activities but porn viewing is predicted by puberty, and porn is also used as a form of sex education. If conservatives really don’t want kids or young people watching porn to learn about sex, then support sex education for them or pornography literacy classes so porn won’t be used as a form of sex education. However, while supporting these programs will lead to better sex health knowledge, young people are still gonna watch porn. You can’t stop it from happening, but you can promote better sexual health and porn literacy so people don’t take porn seriously and learn about better sexual health through sex ed.
Age Doesn’t Seem to Matter Much
If kids do watch porn, there’s no real good reason to assume that if we model age as a variable and enter it in a regression, it would explain a large amount of the variance in self-reported negative effects from porn.
First off, we should doubt a causal relationship between age at first exposure to porn and self-reported negative effects of pornography. As McKee (2007) points out,
“The interviewees point out that as pre-pubescent children encountering pornography that largely had little interest in it, and found it funny”
As McKee notes, other factors noted by those interviewed caused more harm than pornography did. This included things like television and Sunday school. Furthermore, as found in Litsou et al., those interviewed knew pornography was unrealistic, but they did not consider this harmful, contrary to what critics argue. Because of this, it cast doubt on even adjusting for age at all, but let’s do it anyway.
When age at first exposure is modeled as a statistical variable, it explains a small portion of the variance in self-reported negative effects stemming from pornography. When it came to self-reported negative effects from pornography, Mulya and Hald (2014) found age at first exposure to explain only about 1% of the variance of the self-reported negative effects from pornography. (-0.14^2=1.96%).
Similiarly, Miller, Hald, and Kidd (2018) found it to explain about 2% of the variance in self-reported negative effects (-0.12^2 = 1.44%).
Their beta coefficients also showed almost no effect between age and self-reported negative and positive effects.
Thus, we should not expect age at first exposure to be an important variable when it comes to the supposed negative effects of pornography. Since watching pornography before puberty seems to show pornography not being taken seriously, it’s possible the variance explained by age at first exposure is overestimated, thus masking its true coefficient. Since variables will always correlate with one another, it’s doubtful that age at first exposure should be controlled for given the evidence from McKee.
Some people may not care for this, and thus put much more weight on the harmful effects of pornography. Because of this, I wanna focus on some of them, like mental health, sexual behavior, etc.
A quick google search or visit to anti-porn sites brings up a lot of studies showing pornography to be harmful to mental health. However, many of these studies do not adjust for confounders. I don’t wanna make this a long thing, so I’ll focus on the studies that use proper statistical tests to see the relationship between porn and mental health rather than these poorly done studies often cited which are largely cross-sectional in nature and don’t adjust for confounders.
Doornwaard et al. (2016) utilized data from Project STARS (Studies on Trajectories of Adolescent Relationships and Sexuality), a large longitudinal research project on romantic and sexual development among Dutch adolescents. Compulsive use of sexually explicit internet material, psychological well-being, sexual interests, behavior, and impulsive and psychopathic personality was measured among the sample of 331 boys. Longitudinally, higher levels of depression, psychopathic personality traits, excessive sexual interests, and lower self-esteem, were associated with later higher levels of pornography use.
Looking at a non-clinical sample of 672 individuals, Bőthe et al. (2019) found that the majority of pornography consumers do not have problematic pornography consumption, and those that do reflect a minority of the overall userbase. The researchers then measured their life satisfaction, self-esteem, depressive symptoms, sensation-seeking, and basic psychological needs.
Most people did not report mental health issues, especially among the NPLFU and NPHFU classes. However, those in PHFU reported more mental health issues than the first 2 classes reported. They reported higher hypersexuality levels, depressive symptoms, boredom susceptibility, uncomfortable feelings regarding pornography, lower self-esteem levels, and basic psychological needs satisfaction (e.g. felt less relatedness, competence, and autonomy) than the NPLFU and NPHFU class. These results suggest interaction effects between personality and the amount of pornography watched, suggesting between-group differences in the type of people who watch certain amounts of pornography.
Taken together, these findings suggest that mental health issues come before pornography use, and users who do not have problematic pornography consumption do not experience mental health issues but those who do have pre-existing issues rather than pornography harming their mental health through a causal relationship. Of course, it’s possible that porn might cause long-term harm to mental health, an issue worth examining.
Stuholfer, Tafro, and Kohut (2019)’s longitudinal study found that at the baseline, there was a negative correlation between pornography use and anxiety and more depressive symptoms (r=0.19, p<0.001), and lower self-esteem (r=-0.19. p<0.001). For males, however, there was no significant relationship.
The latent growth model for females showed a decrease in depression and anxiety as time went on, which was followed by an increase in pornography use and self-esteem. Similar results were found in the latent growth model for males, where anxiety and depression decreases as time went on. This shows no long-term effects between pornography use and mental well-being, contrary to what some might think.
Although there is no causal relationship between pornography use and lower mental health, even granting the idea of a causal relationship shows no long-term effects. This is in stark contrast to the fears stoked by critics of pornography. Despite this, the relationship between pornography use and lower mental well-being is also inconsistent, and adjusting for further confounders makes the relationship go away, as noted down below.
Kohut and Stulhofer (2018) examined data from two panels through their longitudinal model which consisted of 6-waves. Frequency of pornography use, subjective well-being, depression and anxiety, self-esteem, and impulsiveness were all measured among the samples, along with the adverse family environment, which measured hostile and/or aggressive family environment. Among women, there was a consistent negative relationship between pornography use and well-being in the Zagreb sample, and a similar negative relationship between pornography use and depression and anxiety was found for females in the Rijeka panel.
However, the relationship between pornography use and depression and anxiety was statistically insignificant for men in both panels and adolescent females in the Zagreb panels. The issue of an inconsistent relationship was also found for females in the Zagreb panel for depression and anxiety, but not self-esteem which was most significant. Furthermore, low subjective well-being was associated with an increase in pornography use, but this was only found among females in one of their panels. Adjusting for prior mental health showed no correlation between pornography use and later depression and anxiety in males in the Zagreb panel, and adjusting for impulsivity and adverse family environment also showed no significant relationship for males in the Rijeka panel. For females, there was a significant effect (b=0.09) after adjusting for confounders, but this was only true for the Rijeka panel and not the Zagreb panel.
Wow. So, when proper tests are used to examine the effect porn has on relationships, there is no causal one and it’s inconsistent! Who would have thought this to be the case? I’m not sure, I also wonder why anti-porn critics never cite these studies. Hmmm.
Anyways, one thing related to porn that can cause lower mental health is something commentators of the Libs of Tik Tok post are promoting: stigma towards watching porn.
In a systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature by Grubbs et al. (2019, see 2019b for a response to critics), they looked at studies measuring the correlation between moral disprove of pornography and psychological distress, with the correlations found to be larger than 0.50. In their meta-analysis, religiousness was associated with moral incongruence about pornography, and moral incongruence about pornography was also consistently the best predictor of belief about one experiencing problems related to pornography (aggregate Fisher’s Z=0.67).
Furthermore, longitudinal data has also shown a moral incongruence at baseline to predict compulsivity, distress, and disruption due to pornography a year later for undergraduates (r=0.46) and adults (r=0.61). This relationship held true even after baseline levels of pornography use, religiousness, gender, and personality were held constant.
Similar results were found in Perry (2017), where men who were against pornography for moral reasons experienced distress at the lowest pornography consumption frequency when compared to those who were not morally against pornography. At the highest levels of pornography consumption frequency, those who were not morally against pornography did experience distress, but as Bőthe et al. noted, this has more to do with personality than pornography itself.
Crazy, I know. Who would have thought that causing stigma around porn consumption, which leads one to have shame when they watch porn, would lead to psychological distress. Seems stigma around porn which causes moral issues, not porn itself, is associated with lower mental health when the person decides to watch porn.
The assumption goes that since pornography is negatively associated with relationship quality and how one feels about their partner, it would be the same for young people. This one is very hard to discuss since these studies typically aren’t done on children or adolescents, so people assume the findings done on adults are also found in young people. Because of this, the studies will focus on the effects of porn on relationship quality and things like how someone feels about their partner.
One of the most popular studies often cited by critics of pornography like Gary Wilson and Fight the New Drug is Kenrick, Gutierres, and Goldberg (1998). Kenrick, Gutierres, and Goldberg did two experiments to see the effects of pornography on the ratings of females and one’s love for their partner after being exposed to pornography. The researchers looked at 30 men and 35 women who were married or were in a live-in relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Males were then exposed to 16 slides from Playboy and Penthouse while women were exposed to 16 male slides from Playgirl. Control subjects only viewed 16 abstract art slides. After being exposed to sexual stimuli or abstract art, participants then rated their relationship on a questionnaire with filler items, and their measured attractiveness to their partner. Males exposed to erotica rated their partner as less attractive and reported loving them less than the men exposed to art. For women, sexual exposure through stimuli had no effect on their love and attraction to their partner.
Balzarini et al. (2017) attempted to replicate the findings by Kenrick et al. in three high-powered replication attempts. A sample of MTurk participants was separated into a control and experimental group, with the experimental group being exposed to female nudes from Playboy and Penthouse while the control group was exposed to abstract art. After viewing the image, the sample was asked to rate how aesthetically pleasing the image was, asked filler questions, and then asked to rate their relationship and love for their partner.
For their first study, 438 participants completed the study and it was found that there was no difference between those exposed to abstract art and pornographic material in their attractiveness toward their partner. When doing a meta-analysis (k=4), their average effect size represented in Cohen’s d was 0.02 for partner attractiveness and 0.02 for partner rating. Therefore, there was no effect that pornography had on someone’s love and attractiveness rating for their partner.
These findings are not new, especially since other studies released around the same time as Kenrick and colleagues’ study found opposite results (Amelang and Pielke 1992; Dermer and Pyszczynski 1978), with critics yet to ever cite these studies.
So, doesn't seem porn affects how one feels about their partner. However, there are many studies showing pornography to be negatively correlated with relationship quality (see Doran and Price 2014; Perry and Schleifer 2019; Perry 2019). There are more studies, but there are 2 large issues that these studies do not do: control masturbation and attitudes towards porn. Once this is done, we find that porn itself doesn't harm relationships, showing no causal relationship.
Maas et al. (2018) found that for men more accepting of pornography, it is associated with more relationship satisfaction; however, for men who are less accepting of pornography, it’s the opposite. Women who weren’t accepting of pornography had lower relationship satisfaction than women who were accepting of it.
According to the researchers, attachment style also plays a role between relationship satisfaction and relationship quality. For males who are more anxiously attached, more pornography use is associated with higher relationship satisfaction, but the effect size is small. For women who are anxiously attached, more pornography use is associated with lower relationship satisfaction.
Thus, both acceptance and attachment style can play a role in the negative correlation between pornography use and relationship quality, along with how couples watch pornography when in a relationship.
Attitudes towards pornography are important when it comes to discussing the negative correlation between pornography use and relationship quality since it can influence how someone views the relationship. In a study of 136 women, Adamson et al. (2021) found that women with lower positive attitudes towards pornography reported lower rates of emotional and social intimacy when their partner consumed pornography weekly or more but not when it was lower.
Women who were accepting of pornography did not report lower rates of emotional and social intimacy–regardless of their partner’s pornography use. These effects show that attitudes towards pornography are also important in explaining the relationship between relationship quality and pornography use.
Second, Perry (2019) found the frequency of pornography use was weakly associated with relationship happiness and negative, but once masturbation was held constant in the full model, it became unassociated with relationship happiness.
This shows that relationships do not suffer because of pornography consumption, but rather from masturbation. Since masturbation tends to follow pornography use, controlling masturbation may seem counterintuitive since it’s a byproduct of pornography. As researcher Nicole Prause says, “if you’re not studying masturbation, you’re not studying porn.”
There are plenty of other studies showing pornography not to be harmful to relationships when both couples watch porn together (e.g. Daneback et al. 2009; Kohut et al. 2021; Kohut et al. 2018). Pair this up with attitudes towards porn and masturbation, and you find that pornography itself doesn’t harm relationships. The kids are alright when it comes to them watching porn and their relationships.
One of the final discussions for this article is how porn affects sexual behavior among young consumers. This idea is labeled as sexual script theory and assumes that because young people watch porn, then how they have sex will be influenced by this. I am not aware of any study showing a causal effect or one adjusting for moderating variables (ex., less intelligent people think porn is real and try the things they see), so let’s assume there is a causal relationship for the sake of the argument.
What can we do to curb this? As we discussed at the start of the article, support sex education and porn literacy classes! This will teach people about positive sexual health and relationships, and this could help fix the effects of porn on sexual scripts. However, while this may help, people have sex based on the idea of how they think sex should be for them — something that can be independent of porn itself, so while it may not fix everything, it could be a stepping stone. Regardless, if someone likes a certain sex move, they’ll have it. You can only do so much.
One thing worth discussing, though, is how porn affects risky sexual behavior. Luder et al. (2011) compared the sexual behaviors of people exposed to porn and people who weren’t exposed to porn. For women, there was almost no significant relationship in different types of risky sexual behaviors between porn and risky sexual behavior, except for sexual intercourse before the age of 15 (this is to be expected since it’s likely the case that young porn consumers sexually develop faster than non-users and thus have sex earlier).
For males, the only significant effect after a bootstrap procedure was unwanted exposure to porn and wanted exposure to porn and not using a condom in the last sexual encounter.
This could reflect risk-taking among pornography users, specifically males since males tend to be more risk-taking (Pawlowski et al. 2008).
Thus, it seems that for women, porn isn’t associated with sexual risk-taking. For males, on the other hand, the only association is for condom use during the last sexual intercourse experience, but this might not be due to porn itself. This was something hinted at by the researchers, but it wasn’t about risk-taking
The fact that WE and UE to online pornography was associated with non-condom use suggests that it is not the actual willingness of being exposed to pornography which can be considered as the trigger for risky sexual behaviors. Therefore, it could also be hypothesized that adolescents exposed to SEM could be in a stable relationship [with lower risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)] and using other forms of contraception. Although condom-use rates are higher in Switzerland than in the U.S. (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2009), another explanation could be that the condom is still mainly seen as a means of birth control rather than a protection against STIs. The issues raised by this association should be further investigated in order to provide adequate prevention messages, without incorrectly impeaching SEM exposure as an inevitable trigger factor.
Pornography itself might not be the issue for lack of condom use, but something else.
This is what we should expect given that the best quality evidence suggests that porn is not harmful to different psychological and social variables, but that’s a topic for another day.
In conclusion, pornography is not harmful to children or adolescents. Am I saying kids SHOULD watch porn? No, but if they do, we shouldn’t worry about it. If conservatives are hell-bent on not having kids watch porn somehow, support sex ed or porn literacy classes to promote better sexual health and porn literacy. Furthermore, age doesn't seem to explain much of the variance in self-reported negative effects from porn, casting further doubt on if it’s harmful to kids. The kids are alright.
I wish I could talk more about the effects of porn beyond kids and adolescents, but this isn’t going to happen anytime soon until I submit my thesis which allows me to post further about this topic. In this case, keep waiting.