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Teens Are Being Influenced by Porn, but They Don't Want to Be

"One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos—not major—just a slap here or there," a 13-year-old boy told researchers.

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler

Photo by Branislav Jovanovic via Stocksy

Although teens are having less sex than ever, a new study from the UK shows that nearly all adolescents have seen porn by the time they're 14 years old. The study—which was conducted by researchers at Middlesex University and sponsored by the UK's National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children and the children's commissioner to England—sheds light on the well-wrought assumption that kids these days are being influenced by exposure to explicit materials.

To sum up: Kids are being influenced by exposure to explicit materials, but they don't necessarily like it.

Read more: Teens These Days Are Queer AF, New Study Says

Surveying more than 1000 students ages 11 to 16, researchers sought to understand how, when, and why young teenagers are exposed to pornography. In addition to finding that 94 percent of people aged 14 and under had seen explicit materials online, the study found that 65 percent of 15-to-16-year-olds had seen porn, as had 28 percent of 11-to-12-year-olds. While some young people (19 percent) did seek out the porn they saw, many more (28 percent) stumbled upon it accidentally. More boys are seeking out only pornography than girls. This is consistent with findings from a 2005 study, which found that only 5 percent of self-identified young porn seekers were female.

Given the grotesque proliferation of preteens with iPhones, this is to be expected. More interesting, however, is how the students surveyed felt about all the porn they're being exposed to. Counter to the idea that young people are devilish sex fiends just waiting for the wrong influence to strike them at the right time, the Middlesex research suggests that adolescents actually want to be educated in a healthy way about sex and intimacy. While the researchers concluded that children are at risk of being "desensitized" to porn, many of the students surveyed were aware that porn was not the best way to learn about sex.

This was a particular concern for girls. One 13-year-old girl told researchers that porn "can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it." But boys were also aware of the impact of pornography. "One of my friends has started treating women like he sees on the videos—not major—just a slap here or there," said a 13-year-old boy.

According to Michele Ybarra, president and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health (and an author on the 2005 study), not all pornography is the same. "Violent pornography—the depiction of one person getting hurt by the other person—is associated with the report of sexually violent behavior among youth, whereas non-violent pornography is not," she told me over email. (Though of course, if you don't mean to stumble upon violent porn but do anyway, this isn't much solace.)

In the Middlesex research, only 39 percent of girls said they believed the porn they'd seen was "realistic," compared with 53 percent of boys. The majority of respondents—87 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls—said watching porn didn't help them understand consent.

Read more: Risky Sex Is the Fastest-Growing Health Concern for Young People

Obviously, the way to teach kids consent is through "compulsory, good-quality sex and relationships education," says Claire McGlynn, a professor at the Durham University Law School in the UK who specializes in the legal regulation of pornography and revenge porn. "This will give young people the space to talk about their experiences and discuss issues such as the unrealistic nature of pornography," in addition to offering students concrete information on safe sex.

This research suggests that comprehensive sex education is also what young people want, McGlynn points out. What's more, the young people surveyed supported age restriction verifications on online pornography, "presumably due to the fact that a high proportion of them reported seeing porn accidentally," McGlynn said. While even 14-year-olds realized that this isn't a fool-proof method, both they and the UK's Centre for Gender Equal Media (where McGlynn is a member) urge policymakers to consider it.