Dr. Wes: In July I posted an article on Facebook (www.facebook.com/FamilyPsychologicalServices) in which Keir Starmer, the top British prosecutor suggests that teenage relationships are now more violent due to the prevalence of Internet pornography.
He cites research showing “that exploitation and violence in teenage relationships are more common than previously thought” and that “physical, sexual and emotional abuse was common among 13- to 18-year-olds who were not in mainstream education.”
He then recommends an automatic block on pornography requiring an active override by an adult user as the default setting for Internet service providers.
It sounds like a great idea to me. Unfortunately, despite their claim, Starmer and the Daily Mail failed to cite any research connection dating violence and pornography use, and I’ve never run into one clinically.
Instead, they cite “teenage girls…complaining that their partners were becoming increasingly rough or violent,” without any correlation or causation to anything. Their ultimate conclusion is, however, one we’ve noted in Double Take for many years—pornography skews a teen’s “perceptions of what a normal, healthy sexual relationship is.”
I share Mr. Starmer’s concerns about children’s unlimited access to explicit material that offers an unrealistic and at times, bizarre interpretation of sex and relationships at a very vulnerable age. In fact, free online porn is a principal method by which modern teen boys learn about sex.
I know this because teen girls tell me, and let’s just say they have it on good authority. Asked where they get their info from, most girls cite Cosmopolitan, websites, and friends. Better, but not by much. Regrettably, parents are rarely cited, despite our many attempts in this column over the years to improve that conversation.
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for governmental limits on Internet access. So, parents must heed our longstanding advice to set online filters to reduce the explicit material their teens see. I say “reduce” because I am, as always, a pragmatist. Kids will find a way around any barrier we create to protect them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep putting them there. Apart from effectiveness, those boundaries carry an important message about what parents do and don’t approve of.
Katie: The first time I saw someone holding a porn magazine, I was riding a school bus in sixth grade. Some boys in the back had managed to get their child-sized hands on a copy of Playboy, which they tossed from seat to seat whenever the driver wasn’t looking.
I was a little shocked, a little confused, and more than a little embarrassed, but it took a few years for the ire to kick in. Like other teenage girls today, I’m looking to build my life on equal status with men. There’s a shameful disconnect between the respect we expect from our male counterparts and the obscene videos we know many of them—and, no doubt, some of us—are ogling on the Internet.
That said, it’s impossible to pile the blame for teen dating violence on easy access to pornography. Pornography degrades and demoralizes both genders, but the Daily Mail’s proposed “automatic block on porn,” while perhaps a step forward for youths’ moral development, won’t make violent relationships disappear.
There’s no mathematical equation—or in this case, solid evidence—to explain the rise in dating violence. Any number of factors could contribute and no single one will function completely alone. Probably more influential than the fantasy of pornography are the real-life examples kids see at home, at school, and anywhere in between.
Unless parents convert their homes into padded prisons with Orwellian-style surveillance, they can’t shield teens from every instance of obscene content that comes their way, with or without automatic Internet blocks. However, signs of potentially unhealthy relationships can sometimes be decoded, and that’s where parents can come to the rescue.
Talk openly with your kids about sex, love, and respect for romantic partners long before less reliable sources start the conversation for you. No one can promise a foolproof (or puberty-proof) way to prevent dating violence, but filtering point-and-click porn from educating sixth graders about the birds and the bees may be a good place to start.