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It is generally accepted that porn shouldn't be seen by children, and we even sometimes punish parents who fail to stop their children from finding porn.

What is the justification? The only "damage" I've seen caused by porn is other adults' outrage. Like, the child gets suspended from school because a teacher found lewd pictures on his Nintendo DS or something.

Is it okay to let a kid view porn provided you warn him not to share knowledge of it with other people? Why?

Note that I also posted this question on cogsci.se.

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porn is to sex as chase scenes in movies are to drivers ed. And for a small child it can be not only deceiving, but scary. There is plenty of time to watch it when they are young adults, there's no hurry. –  Chrys Aug 15 '13 at 11:49
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Regarding your last question, you can determine with your child's or children's other parent if you want to do that based on the answers. With regard to anyone else's kids, never tell a kid not to tell their parents something. Kids should never, ever be taught to keep secrets from their parents. –  justkt Aug 27 '13 at 1:15
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4 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

"Porn" runs a wide gamut of idealized or fantasy scenarios. Many, if not most, of pornographic materials, portray intimate relations in a way that is not typical.

I would imagine a pornographic movie that depicts the awkward "getting to know each other" phase, dating, and the social and emotional intimacy that most parents would hope their children would seek prior to sexual activity would be pretty boring.

Instead, at best you'll get scenarios which encourage casual sexual encounters, which increase risk of sexually transmitted diseases. At worst, the material could depict sexual scenarios or fantasies that could include BDSM, rape fantasy, or general physical aggression. The main dangers of this is that the child could confuse these behaviors for "normal", and try to replicate them during actual situations.

In other words, pornographic materials are based upon an implicit level of consent that may be obscured by the fact that they are fake portrayals by actors or actresses, and a child viewing the materials may not be aware that the acts seen in the materials should not be engaged in without explicit consent by their partner.

Edit I included the following references to highlight that there are other areas of potential concern. However, please note that the Psychology Today blog entry does not list its sources, and the 2003 survey is just that: a survey. Surveys aren't the most effective method of scientific research, although that doesn't mean it should be dismissed out of hand. Still, take the conclusions from both these sources with a grain of salt. In my opinion, the primary concern is the unrealistic depiction of intimate relationships, as described in the previous portion of my answer.

This article in Psychology Today raises several areas of concern:

Early Sex

A 2012 study shows that movies influence teens’ sexual attitudes and behaviors as well. The study, published in Psychological Science, found that the more teens were exposed to sexual content in movies, the earlier they started having sex and the likelier they were to have casual, unprotected sex.

In another study, boys who were exposed to sexually explicit media were three times more likely to engage in oral sex and intercourse two years after exposure than non-exposed boys. Young girls exposed to sexual content in the media were twice as likely to engage in oral sex and one and a half times more likely to have intercourse.

High Risk Sex

Research shows that children who have sex by age 13 are more likely to have multiple sexual partners, engage in frequent intercourse, have unprotected sex and use drugs or alcohol before sex. In a study by researcher Dr. Jennings Bryant, more than 66 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls reported wanting to try some of the sexual behaviors they saw in the media (and by high school, many had done so), which increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Intimacy Disorders

research shows that early exposure to pornography is a risk factor for sex addictions and other intimacy disorders. In one study of 932 sex addicts, 90 percent of men and 77 percent of women reported that pornography was a factor in their addiction.

Sexual Violence

According to some studies, early exposure (by age 14) to pornography and other explicit material may increase the risk of a child becoming a victim of sexual violence or acting out sexually against another child.

A 2003 survey of youth exposure to unwanted sexual materials highlights another risk: a child may simply find pornographic material disturbing or upsetting. Without the hormonal changes and normal desires driving them to explore intimacy in a "normal" context, sudden exposure to pornographic material can be... well, gross. According to the survey, about 1/4 of the youth exposed to unwanted sexual materials were actively and extremely upset about what they saw. 17% avoided the Internet as a result of the exposure, and 6% thought about it and couldn't stop.

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Porn is, even to adults, the junk food of sex; it is a complete fantasy, and while some of it may be plausible, the primary reason to watch porn is to see something you're not getting in your everyday life. While a certain amount of such escapism is normal and even healthy, it depicts activities that are typically more fun to do than to watch. A few genres depict acts that are unsafe and even illegal to perform in "real life", even between consenting adults. And porn doesn't show what happens behind the scenes or when the cameras stop rolling; there's a lot of more than slightly illegal activities like prostitution, drugs, human trafficking, kickbacks/shakedowns, and other organized criminal activity that are inextricably linked to pornography.

The general harm that pornography and other "mature content" like violence, language etc have on young children is that they contribute towards the child's definition of "normal". Children often lack the "content filter" (heck, even many adults don't have it) that allows them to differentiate reality from fantasy. We tell children stories, and those stories mold their understanding of the world. The same happens when they view TV or play video games.

Thus, by watching pornography, kids absorb what's on screen and think that behavior is "normal". While sex itself is indeed normal, between consenting, loving adult partners, the actors are just that, and they're picked for, ahem, measurements and other physical traits that are typically found in a small minority of the "real world" (if at all; a lot of what you see in porn is the result of often-dangerous and damaging surgical enhancement), the same as supermodels, movie celebs and other people who spend a significant time in front of a camera. The plots and situations the actors play out are extremely unlikely (if not, as I said, illegal), the behavior is often degrading and even humiliating, and virtually every emotion you see played on screen is fake. In short, it's an act, a fantasy. It's not normal.

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But you could say that about any entertainment. Replace "porn" with "racing" in your answer and it reads all the same. Yet we buy kids toy cars and take them to Cars the movie. You fail to show why porn is special. –  Ansis Malins Aug 29 '13 at 10:00
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@AnsisMalins I think that's kinda his point . . . porn is NOT special, that it's like any other overindulged consumerist behaviour; that a child can't really distinguish between the depiction and the real world. –  monsto Aug 30 '13 at 10:33
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Based on my comment on Beofett's post, some would say "well, look at you just defending porn."

Yeah? So?

Porn -- like sex, drugs, and rock n roll -- is a subject to be discussed with your kids. It's not to be taken lightly or assumed that it'll take care of itself in due course... that's honestly how babies get made.

I grew up in suburbia and started sneaking my dads porn at like 10 or 11. From mags to film (yes I'm that old) to vids. And I'm nowhere near the basket case that these studies make out. I have a great fambly, my kids love me, even the step, and I'm generally thought of as a swell guy in my neighborhood.

(Side note, I asked my 10 yr old y'day "have you ever thought about running away?" He looked at me like I was crazy and said "why would you ask me that? do you WANT me to run away?" This is the house I live in.)

Lets consider some reality. In another post here about television, I said...

I always find the topic of children vs TV as an odd dichotomy. It's like everyone watches tv but nobody wants their kids to watch tv.

The fact is that the most profitable sites on the web are porn. Cam, streaming, download, you name it. I read somewhere that 100m Americans 'consume' some kind of porn on a daily basis. I'll bet that there are regular users of this forum that watch porn regularly. Statistically, this is truth. Join the club.

The numbers for the industry are so vast, so mind bogglingly huge, that I find it extremely difficult to believe that "it's harmful" is even vaguely a true statement. So many people partake on a daily basis without giving any indication to the people around them, because they are normal, law-abiding citizens.

So let me rephrase the question a couple different ways...

  • Can porn be harmful at all to a child? Yes.
  • Can porn be harmful at all to an adult? Yes.

Wait a sec. . . Let's be specific.

  • Will viewing porn as a child cause the adult person to inflict sexually related abuses? No.
  • Will viewing porn as an adult cause the adult to inflict sexually related abuses on others? No.
  • Will the subject (that watched porn as a child or that regularly watches porn as an adult) have a statistical propensity to inflicting sexually related abuses? Unknown.

Re point 3: I'm referring to the lack of specific statistics showing that a child subjected to porn only (not coupled with abuses or neglect) lead to that person being a sexually abusive adult.

As I said in the comment, causation vs correlation. An adult that sexually abuses children may very well have seen some amount of porn before they were of an age to handle it. I'd lay money that 99% of it was in an atmosphere of abuse or neglect; a mere factor in an atmosphere that, on the whole, was responsible for who they are.

Do I have statistics to back this up? No. The only thing I have is reality. Reality says that 200m people watch television for more than 2 hours a day, and 100m people watch at least some porn each day... And there aren't 200m idiots running around with their thumbs in their butts, or 100m people playing grabass in the workplace or hitting on 8 yr old girls.

"No, of course not, but sexual abuses happen way too often." Again, statistics. 0.1% of 100m is 100 thousand. When you have 100m people doing ANYTHING, even the most remote statistic is going to be a huge number. To say that it's a direct cause is at best inaccurate and at worst irresponsible when it's near impossible to carve out what causes what in a persons behaviour. Lets face it: people are people, and some people are just morons. These particular morons just happen to watch porn like 100m other people.

To answer directly the question of "What harm is porn"

I say that the harm isn't the porn... I say that the harm is in not discussing it and moderating it with your kids. At certain young ages, it warrants blocking. As they get older you can either give them a mental foundation to deal with it under your guardian's eye, O R you can pretend that it's not something they're into and continue to block it till they go to college... which is basically you throwing caution to the wind because as a teenager they will experiment and fool around at their [opposite sex] friend's house and either wind up needing antibiotics or making you a grandparent before you turn 40.

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In general, I like your answer. However, these two points: "Will viewing porn as a child cause the adult person to inflict sexually related abuses? No. Will viewing porn as an adult cause the adult to inflict sexually related abuses on others? No." strike me as rather questionable claims. Saying the (unreferenced) Psych Today article doesn't prove causation with the claims of correlation is valid, but then saying unequivocally that there is no causation without citing research seems pretty invalid. –  Beofett Aug 30 '13 at 12:25
    
I follow that up with the explanation that porn winds up being part of the 'package deal' with abusers. That nobody can point to porn and go "there it is, the problem, right there" with any certainty. –  monsto Aug 30 '13 at 12:30
    
I agree, but then, the converse of that is that no one can point to porn and go "that's absolutely not a problem" with any certainty, either. –  Beofett Aug 30 '13 at 12:32
    
Wow I missed your comment. Taking my ?'s literally, "Will?", the answer is "No". It's simply not a foregone conclusion either way. In that context, your comment is no more/less correct than mine. So since no one can truly define porn as a factor or not, then why is it even part of the discussion? Raising ducks or having a healthy garden is the same way but it's never part of the conversation even tho Jeffery Dahmer (was it?) raised ducks and Bob Berdella had a great garden. Which goes back to my real point: Stop pretending the world will raise your (rhetorical your) kids and do it yourself. –  monsto Oct 7 '13 at 19:54
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I won't reiterates the comprehensive answers provided by Beofett and Keith, Chrys and justkt, I'd like to add a few points.

I recall when this question first appeared on SE cogsci, and I believe in it's current form, that is the better site for this question. As you are asking about the possible and psychological damage of children viewing porn.

As your question stands on a parenting site I am alarmed for more than one reason.

  • firstly, the notion that the only harm could be from the outrage of other adults This is a rather glib interpretation of a community reaction to something that is considered harmful to children. Ok, I will accept you are philosophizing and asking is it truly harmful or an arbitrarily drawn moral line.

(but then you follow with)

  • is it ok if you tell the child not to tell anyone Seriously, this disturbs me. This is the sort of things pedophiles do when grooming children. Encouraging children to keep activities, especially of a sexual nature, from others.

It is one thing for a couple of teenage boys getting their hands on a soft porn magazine, like playboy, it's quite another for an adult to watch pornography with a child!

Having said that, I agree with the others, porn is not a healthy or realistic introduction for sex education. Viewing "kinky" or adult fantasy porn is not helpful and potentially damaging.

No where is this an argument against sex education (to address monstos post) it is against porn per se being a healthy medium for children.

Question:
does one need to ask if watching r rated violence is helpful in teaching about domestic violence and playground dos and don'ts? Would encouraging children to watch r rated violence, if they don't tell anyone make it ok?
This question, essentially asks the same type of thing.

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As far as 'healthy medium for children' goes, kids are mentally exposed to much worse than porn on a daily basis. Two 11-12 yo's looking at a tube site and giggling at boobies is reality. It may not be desirable but I call it normal in middle class America... which, by the way, is a country that was founded by religious extremists who felt that burning witches and meting out severe and bloody corporal punishments on citizens -- as bad as the fundamentalist governments of today -- was required by God's Law. Being 400 years down line of that social norm puts us here having this conversation. –  monsto Oct 7 '13 at 20:12
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@monsto the discussion is not about comparing harmful media, it is about porn. Looking at boobies, is not the same as sitting down with an adult watching porn. Sexual activity is porn, not nakedness per se. I'd rather keep my opinions on American belief systems, society and politics out of this question. It's outside the scope of the question. I understand what you are saying, communication is important, but porn is NOT helpful for developing children, as watching horror movies is NOT helpful. –  user4784 Oct 7 '13 at 22:58
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