Uh-oh. You've discovered your teen has been downloading pornography. Your first impulse may be to cut the Internet connection, to shield him or her from the porn industry's often violent and unrealistic depictions of sex and to fret about how they may be harming your child.
But in spite of widespread warnings that pornography is warping young people's sex lives, new research suggests parents have no need to panic: It may not be as influential on teens' sexual behaviour as we may think.
In a study published online today in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers analyzed the results of an online survey of 4,600 young people in The Netherlands between the ages of 15 and 25. The participants were asked about their use of pornography and about various aspects of their sexuality, including the number of sexual partners they have had, whether they had one-night stands, whether they had ever exchanged money for sex, and whether they participated in "adventurous sex," such as threesomes.
Gert Martin Hald, lead author of the study and associate professor in the department of public health at the University of Copenhagen, says previous studies have tended to focus on the link between pornography consumption and young people's rates or risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections, often failing to control for other factors. "This means that previous studies could have overestimated the association between pornography and sexual behaviours," he says.
So for their study, he and his fellow researchers also considered a variety of other factors, such as participants' sexual self-esteem, their sexual assertiveness and "sexual sensation seeking," or the extent to which they sought out sexual excitement and physical pleasure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team found that more than 88 per cent of young men and nearly 45 per cent of young women had used pornography in the past 12 months. The male participants were more interested in hard-core pornography, while the female participants more frequently watched soft-core material, and both genders preferred to consume it via the Internet than on television and DVDs or in magazines.
But while the researchers found there was a statistically significant relationship between the subjects' pornography use and their sexual behaviour, that link turned out to be a modest one.
The subjects' own personal dispositions, particularly whether they were sexual sensation seeking, were likely to be a greater influence, Hald says.
The findings downplay warnings from the likes of Donna Frietas, author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy, that young people are learning how to act and talk about sex from porn stars.
Hald says his study suggests that more attention and research should be directed to other influences beyond just pornography.
"There has been a sort of moral panic – sometimes in Britain and in the U.S. especially – about the influence of pornography on sexual behaviours," he says. "And although this study can't claim to investigate cause and effect, it can still say that there are a lot of other factors that determine sexual behaviours, so maybe we should put the debate into a larger perspective instead of being just one-sided."
Even though pornography may not have a big impact on what young people do, Hald acknowledges that previous studies have shown it could affect how they think about sex, depending on the individual.
"Pornography for the general user might not add to, for example, attitudes of violence against women," Hald says. "But for a small group of people, pornography seemed to increase the likelihood that these attitudes are formed or developed and also of increased sexual aggression."
He suggests the best advice for parents is to discuss sex with their children and to address pornography as part of those conversations.
"But," he adds, "they shouldn't worry as much … if their child uses pornography, at least from a scientific point of view. It's not the Third World War, so to speak."