SEX

Study: Most Teen Boys Think Porn Is ‘Realistic’

Online porn is giving young people an informal sexual education, for better or for worse

SEX
Photo Illustration: Vocativ
Jun 17, 2016 at 11:20 AM ET

Scientists have confirmed what we all suspected: Young people are watching porn. And while that’s helping some of them receive a sexual education they might not be getting elsewhere, it could also be changing their expectations about what safe, consensual sex looks like, especially for young boys.

A report on a survey conducted by researchers from Middlesex University and supported by the nonprofit National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in the United Kingdom was published online Wednesday.

“Children and young people face enormous pressures as they navigate the complexities of life; we need to ensure that we are not creating a narrative for young people that viewing and emulating online pornography is normal, acceptable or indeed expected,” the researchers write in the forward to the report.

The researchers surveyed 1,000 British youths between ages 11 and 16. Unsurprisingly, older teens were more likely to have seen porn—28 percent of 11- or 12-year-olds surveyed said they had, compared to 65 percent of teens ages 15 and 16. Boys were more likely to have seen it than were girls. And teens were about as likely to search for it deliberately as they were to see it by accident, often arriving at porn sites from popup ads while using the internet for other purposes.

As kids continued watching and got more used to porn, they became less shocked and confused by it. That might not be all bad—many of the comments from the online focus groups showed that porn was helping kids understand what they learned about in sex ed class and to be more open about sex instead of thinking it’s taboo.

Then again, porn has been shown to influence people’s expectations about sex, which could be detrimental to kids who are reaching sexual maturity. Researchers surveyed the young people on how realistic they found pornography, and discovered a gendered difference. Slightly over half of male respondents agreed that pornography is realistic, while a slightly lower proportion of female respondents (39%) agreed.

The kids, accordingly, saw both good and bad elements in porn. And even if they had seen porn, it didn’t necessarily translate to more sexual behavior—a very small percentage had ever exchanged sexts or nude photos.

It’s important to know that this survey was conducted in the United Kingdom, so the findings might not be applicable in the United States. And the organization that funded the research, the NSPCC, has been embroiled in several scandals in recent years, for what critics call fear mongering directed towards parents.

The researchers suggest that improving teens’ access to sex ed would help dispel some of the misinformation that porn might communicate about safe sex and consent. Addressing porn in particular—both the good and bad parts of it—would help teens feel less guilty if they do decide to watch. The NSPCC site suggests that parents address these concerns directly with their children. And better online security could prevent teens from being bombarded with porn-filled popups if they aren’t seeking it out.