Your teen isn’t a sexual deviant for watching porn. But unhealthy use could affect their psychological well-being.
You may have put the parental control settings on your teen’s devices. You might check the internet history. You could be talking openly with your teen about appropriate online activities.
Still, porn viewing among teens is nearly ubiquitous, and your teen is probably not the exception.
So, is watching porn bad for teens? The answer isn’t simple.
Porn as a concept is not inherently harmful to teenage brains. But preexisting mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can lead to problematic porn use, and porn may spread sexual misinformation to your teen.
All the parental control locks in the world aren’t keeping teens from viewing pornographic material, a 2018 study research showed.
However, it’s difficult to reliably estimate how many teens watch porn, since much of the research relies on self-reporting from teens.
A more modest range in a 2022 study found that 63% to 68% of teens have watched porn in their lifetime, while 23% to 42% watched in the last year.
Where are they watching it?
A teenager’s first exposure to pornography is often unintentional. A pop-up ad might have pornographic content. Or a friend might show another teen a video on their phone.
According to a 2021 survey, about 55% of teens’ first encounters with pornography were unexpected.
Gone are the days of covertly purchasing and hiding a nude magazine. Porn is always accessible right from the phone in your teen’s pocket.
As you can imagine, the survey above found that teens are using phones more than any other format, including desktop computers and tablets, to watch porn.
While sometimes friends will share pornographic content with others, viewing porn is primarily a singular activity. The same survey found that 75% of teens reported viewing alone rather than with peers.
Some reasons that teens have reported watching porn include:
- to learn about sex
- to relax
- sexual pleasure
- peer influence
- to cope with COVID-19 quarantine and isolation
- stress reduction
Is it typical for teens to watch porn?
While the motivation for teens to watch porn varies, the drive to learn more about sex is a natural part of sexual maturation.
False expectation, it mirrors ‘the real thing’
Your concerns that X-rated content will warp the developing brain of your teen are completely understandable.
It may be encouraging to know that multiple studies found that many teens already view pornography as a fake production intended for entertainment and consumerism and are not “duped” into believing that these are real-life sexual encounters.
However, some teens have also self-reported that pornography is their number 1 source for learning about sex. In New Zealand, 71% of surveyed youth used internet porn as a learning tool.
If you’ve discovered that your teenager is watching porn, you’re in the company of most parents in the Western world.
Just because it’s common, doesn’t mean that the thought of your innocent child starting a journey into sexual development is easy to process.
Give yourself a beat to strategize how you’ll approach this topic.
There is no consensus among researchers whether teens viewing porn negatively impacts psychological well-being and future intimate relationships. But the potential for negative impact is there.
Avoid shaming your teen
Your teen may not fully understand their newfound sexual urges. But they likely feel an intense need for privacy from their parents.
Even though pornography is not the ideal tool to explore these urges, it’s important to not send the message that sex exploration or sex is shameful.
Instead, try keeping the focus on how pornography is an imperfect medium for learning about sex.
Discuss possible complications
Studies about how porn affects the teenage brain have been so scattered that it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. The studies below have found some negative impacts, but it’s important to remember that porn will not inherently damage your teenager.
Problematic porn use, however, means that porn viewership has become a compulsive behavior and could indicate an obsession.
2018 studyshowed that pornography exposure lead to decreased self-esteem and negatively impacted symptoms of anxiety and depression in teenage girls specifically.
2021 studyfound an association between pornography exposure in teen males and aggressive and rule-breaking behavior.
- A 2022 study showed that teens who live with anxiety and depression can often be at a higher risk of problematic porn use.
Teach porn literacy
Instead of shying away from the awkwardness of porn and teenage sexuality, experts suggest teaching
Porn literacy teaches teens to view porn through a critical lens and consider its misgivings about sexuality.
Some topics that porn literacy might cover are:
- healthy flirting and obtaining consent
- signs of porn addiction
- nonaggression in dating relationships
Teaching pornography literacy does not mean that you have to ever actually view porn as part of the curriculum.
Keep the conversation going
If you’re not comfortable diving into the world of porn literacy, consider searching for a local youth program in your area that offers a similar course.
Pornhub has also launched a sexual wellness center that focuses on real-life sexual health, as opposed to the fantasy of sex.
What’s most important is the ongoing open conversations about safety, healthy sex practices (solo and with others), and that your teen knows they can talk with you and be free of shame.
Porn doesn’t necessarily mean that your teen will be a sexual deviant or psychologically harmed. Your teenager could be viewing porn for sexual exploration, or as an escapist outlet.
But there are some studies that suggest watching porn can affect aggression levels, anxiety, and depression in teens. Problematic porn use could be a sign of another mental health condition.
As the parent, you know your teen best. But don’t assume they’ll come to you about their porn-viewing habits.
You can start the conversation in a judgment-free way so that you can help educate where porn misinforms. Having these difficult talks with your teen might also help gauge their rationale for watching and help you choose which helpful resources to provide.