Over the piece, it’s probably a fairly healthy thing that adolescents don’t tell their parents everything; it seems to me to be a necessity of the parenting experience that mum and/or dad should lie in bed and worry about what Johnny or Jenny is or isn’t doing. Over the decades, these worries may not have changed all that much – the unsatisfactory friends, particularly the unsatisfactory boyfriend or girlfriend; the half bottle of cheap vodka; the smell of smoke; and, of course DRUGS! Add to that all the accumulated horrors of social media i.e. those threats which their parents didn’t even have themselves when young – online bullying; sexting; grooming by the dodgy elderly – and it’s astonishing that the parents of fifteen year olds ever sleep at all.
So, it’s with a certain level of guilt that I want to try to prompt a discussion about the one thing about which I don’t really believe parents and young people are engaging at all. Amid the occasional po-faced attempts to discuss sex, is there any chat about pornography? I know, of course, that many parents don’t like to think about their kids’ sexual activity (any more, blegh, than the kids like to think about mum and dad…) but the evidence is mounting that accessing porn can, for a minority of its young users, be really harmful.
I need to say at the outset that if this was just a moral issue, then I wouldn’t be bothering. I’m not even sure, to be honest, that relative to all the cruelty and lies and horror going on in the world, porn is all that much of a moral problem. And I frankly doubt that there are all that many parents who can look at themselves and honestly say that, if online porn had been so readily available when they were adolescent, they wouldn’t have looked at it. Of course we would; it might have been a bit more satisfactory than searching underwear catalogues or looking up dirty words in the dictionary as a source of pubescent stimulus. Research suggests that the vast majority of boys, and an increasing number of girls, access porn regularly, and most of our young people develop into entirely normal, healthy, loving human beings; but just as a small proportion of those who start with alco-pops will become alcoholics, or those who share a spliff at 16 (I bet that’s not the word anymore) will become addicted to drugs, there are those kids who will, in effect, become addicted to a porn habit and that habit will, I’m afraid, damage them in all sorts of ways – their ‘moral character’ being the least of their worries.
So what happens to this small minority of young people – most of them boys but not all? Well, a study completed this year of 6,500 Polish college students found that 15% of them reported high levels of porn addiction and that the effects of that constant exposure to porn included psychological and physiological threats. To put it a bit more bluntly, it becomes much more difficult for young people who have become addicted to pornography to get sexual satisfaction from actual sex with actual other people and it isn’t difficult to see how this could make it very difficult for them to have successful ‘grown up’ relationships. The whole business of early sexual activity is so fraught and fragile anyway, imagine adding in the extra fear that your boyfriend is actually more interested in porn than in you. Plus there are all the much-documented issues concerned with how someone who watches a lot of porn sees themselves and others sexually. Consider how those young women and young men who take part in porn look, and consider how they are…built…then consider how an adolescent of any gender must feel when they consider their own (inadequate) bodies. An additional worry is escalation – some young people start off watching porn which features fairly conventional sexual acts, but they get bored very quickly with that, and move on to material which is much more hard core and, potentially, illegal. 32% of these Polish students, for example, said that they had moved on to watching violent material. You don’t have to be Kinsey to see how that might rather interfere with your notions about sex when an actual sexual partner appears (what a miracle!) over the horizon. All of this has led to the agreement among experts that excessive pornography use is a factor in Compusive Sexual Behaviour Disorder.
Now, sleepless parents, this isn’t something that’s happening to everybody exposed to pornography, but it’s more likely to happen, studies show, to young people than to their elders (because, folks, let’s not pretend that watching porn is confined to teenagers). The Reward Foundation, a Scottish charity, has been doing work in schools, and with the NHS, to highlights these problems, and the neurological effects of watching too much porn. Hope also lies in the UK Government’s (ah that Mrs May, how we long for her now….) age verification legislation, the practical implementation of which is in the process of being rolled out. If it works (and oh, these IT kids can be sneaky) then it will make it much more difficult of anyone under 18 to watch pornography – which in itself may lead to withdrawal symptoms….sigh….
So, as you lie awake listing all the worries you have for your children (this is, in essence, what parents are for) maybe consider a strategy for discussing this issue with your teenagers, or encourage your child’s school to discuss it with them. It’s a problem for some kids, and it’s a problem that could harm them for years in ways it’s difficult for us auld yins to imagine.