Young people’s views about sexual content online

By Anne Collier

As the 12- and 13-year-old girls tell New York magazine writer Alex Morris how they use Omegle, another ChatRoulette-type site (in groups with fake names and disconnecting often and fast when the chat gets “perverted”), they describe how differently boys handle sexual content online. It reminds me of a thought-provoking 2005 Boston Globe article, “The Secret Life of Boys” (that I blogged about here). In this year’s piece, the girls make it clear they can handle this stuff – they toy with the people who start doing “disgusting” things and hit Disconnect, they tell Morris. “The girls know to be wary of strangers on the Internet – but they’re also wary of how the web is affecting the boys they might actually want to date.” They liken the gender difference to how, when kids are little, girls avoid mud puddles so they won’t get their clothes dirty, while boys jump right in. Then the girls say exposure to Net porn can make boys “kind of, like, inappropriate” … “perverts at a younger age” but (maybe hopefully?) they add, “it’s just a stage in middle school … once they get older, they’ll grow out of it.” Though suggesting it would never happen to them, they tell Morris that sometimes boys want their girlfriends to do what they see in online porn. But Morris leads the article with the story of a 14-year-old posting non-nude but highly suggestive photos online to get reactions (see this about online attention-getting), especially from her boyfriend. [She apparently loves his protectiveness but refuses to delete the photos when he suggests she do that because of the content of other boys’ comments (but she also tells Morris she’d never post nude photos, just suggestive ones).]

So this is what sounds just like back in 2005, pre-social networking: “This is the paradoxical fear of many heterosexual 14-year-olds girls: that the Internet is making boys more aggressive sexually – more accepting of graphic images or violence toward women – but also … less interested in the standard-issue, flesh-and-bone girls they encounter in real life…. This puts young women in the sometimes uncomfortable position of trying to bridge the gap.” Is that why the 14-year-old above was posting suggestive photos? There are more questions than answers, but Pew/Internet turned up some reasons – see their findings on sexting, the taking and sending of nude photos on phones in which – it’s important to remember – 96% of youth surveyed do not engage, Pew said. And Morris writes, “While it’s not surprising that adults believe today’s youth are navigating a brave new world, what is surprising is that the kids themselves – who’ve never known anything different – feel that way, too. They get that they are in a strange, uncharted place.”

Related links

* US data: A 2006 study found that “42% of youth reported some form of exposure to pornographic content. Of those youth who report exposure, 66% say it was unwanted” (p. 14 of “Risky Behaviors and Online Safety: A 2010 Literature Review (DRAFT)”; for other findings, see “Exposure to Problematic Content,” on pages 14 and 26). The 2006 study is here.
* UK data: A 2009 study by Britain’s NSPCC found that a third of 13-to-17-year-old girls in the UK “have been forced into sexual activity against their will” and “one in five boys questioned said they had suffered violence from a girlfriend but only one in 17 felt pressured into sexual activity,” The Telegraph reports.
* I love this advice to a dad from author/educator Annie Fox: “My 12-year-old downloaded porn?!”
* The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations (December 2008), by Mary Eberstadt, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology in the Psychiatry Department of the University of Pennsylvania
* Cris Clapp Logan at Enough is Enough on “Pornography & Pop Culture: Pushing the Limits, Sexualizing Youth”

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