Expert view

Dr Heather Wood

Dr Heather Wood has worked in the NHS for over 30 years and now works as a therapist in a specialist NHS clinic, treating people who suffer from compulsive sexual behaviours, as well as teaching and training other staff.

Young people and pornography 

Dr Heather Wood, a psychotherapist and psychologist specialising in the issue of compulsive sexual behaviour, explains how and why young people access internet pornography and offers concerned parents some practical advice.

Young people are naturally curious about sex. They seek out information to prepare for making adult relationships and to work out who they will be as a sexually-active adult, asking questions like “What do I find attractive and stimulating?” and “What will someone find attractive about me?”

Over the years, art, literature and pornography have all had a place in this self-education. Young people inform themselves and find pleasure and amusement in looking at images of naked bodies and sexual acts and sharing their discoveries with friends.

With the arrival of the Web and the availability of internet pornography, young people now have much easier access to a larger quantity of sexual materials. Whereas in the past, a curious teenager might have had to go to the local newsagent and overcome his embarrassment to buy a top shelf magazine – or get someone older to do so on his behalf – now, limitless amounts of pornography are available online via computers, mobile phones and other devices.

I work in a specialist NHS clinic that treats adults and young people with problems of compulsive sexual behaviour. Since 1997, when the first adult who had problems with internet pornography was referred to us, we have seen a steady increase in the number of adults, and more recently of young people, who are experiencing problems related to the internet and sex.

Adults and young people come for help because they are using internet pornography in a compulsive way or because they have been in trouble with the police for downloading illegal images of people under 18 or because they have got involved in taking or distributing illegal images.

Does exposure to pornography harm young people?

Many young people will have some exposure to internet pornography, find it amusing or boring or exciting, but then get on with the business of making real-life relationships with people their own age. But some young people may be exposed to images which they find disturbing or which skew their view of a ‘normal’ sexual relationship or a normal body.

A very small proportion of people who look at internet pornography get caught up in a cycle of compulsive use and spend more and more time looking at pornography and start to neglect work commitments, friends and family. They become very preoccupied with when they can next look at pornography and often feel less engaged and invested in their everyday lives.

For young people, there are particular dangers associated with looking at internet pornography. For example, while it is appropriate for a 15-year-old boy to be sexually interested in someone his own age, a sexual image of a 15-year-old is illegal, and it is a criminal act to download or distribute such an image in the UK.

Young people’s sexuality is also still in the process of forming and taking shape. If they are exposed to images of extreme or violent sexual acts during this time, they may find it hard to get these images out of their minds when they come to have sex with a partner. Just as the fashion catwalks and media often present a picture of ‘the perfect body’ that makes some young people feel unhappy that their body does not match up to this ideal, so pornography can present an idealised image of sexual potency or sexual attractiveness and can leave people feeling bad about themselves when they inevitably fall short of this ideal.

Young people’s views

In a survey of young people’s attitudes to internet pornography that we undertook with BBC Radio 1 in 2011, we found that 71% of a sample of 18 to 24-year-olds thought it was too easy to access pornography on the internet; 50% thought looking at too much pornography can make you feel bad about yourself; and 63% thought that pornography can have a harmful effect on people’s ideas about sex and sexuality.

This survey revealed that it is not just parents and teachers who are concerned – young people are also worried about the effects that viewing pornography can have on them and want it to be more difficult to access.

Those young adults who were using online pornography for more than 10 hours a week (who we called ‘heavy users’) were more likely to think it could do harm and were more concerned about themselves and what they were doing. It seems that more pornography does not mean more fun; for some young people, it can mean more worry.

What can you do?

There is a lot that you can do to limit your son’s or daughter’s exposure to pornography in your home.

First, and most importantly, stay engaged with them, encourage them to talk to you and support them in making real-life relationships.

Secondly, get some insight into how your child might be using digital technologies to explore sex and relationships – this is a natural part of growing up, it’s just that the younger generation is doing it in different ways to how we did.

What is pornography?

Images, audio and written materials are considered to be pornographic if they are designed to arouse sexual feelings or portray sexual activities.