Watching porn may influence sexual behavior in young people, but not as much as some doctors and parents might have thought.
Researchers in the Netherlands determined that teens who use pornography are not significantly more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors. However, they did find the amount of pornography young people watched was a significant contributor to differences in teen's sexual behaviors, but one of many factors that could influence their sex lives.
The study was published this week in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
"Pornography is not as big and bad a wolf as we thought it was, and maybe we should focus on other factors," study author Gert Martin Hald, a clinical psychologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, told HealthDay.
For the study, researchers looked at 4,600 teens between the age of 15 and 25 who lived in the Netherlands. They were asked through a 2010 online survey questions about their ethnicity, relationship status, the amount and type of pornography they viewed, and about their attitudes on sex and history of sexual experiences. Specifically, the subjects were asked to report and potentially risky behaviors, including how many sexual partners they had, whether they had experiences with the same sex and whether they had paid for sex. The survey was conducted online to make subjects feel more comfortable, so they were more likely to answer questions truthfully.
Researchers determined that consumption of sexually-explicit materials by young people only accounted for between 0.3 percent to 4 percent of variances among the teen's self-reported sexual behavior. They did point out that porn may in part open young minds to other sexual possibilities or increase sexual arousal, which could lead to more sexual experiences and increases in risk.
Other factors may be more influential on a teen's sexual behavior, the researchers found. For example, the surveys suggested some subjects had a "sensation-seeking" personality, which may make them more inclined to experiment sexually. Previous studies have reported people with sensation-seeking personalities may be more likely to have sexually transmitted infections, the researchers noted. Sexual assertiveness and self-esteem also played small roles in affecting teen sexual behavior. Other influential factors may include a subject's upbringing and genetics.
"There has been a sort of moral panic - sometimes in Britain and in the U.S. especially - about the influence of pornography on sexual behaviors," Hald told the Globe and Mail. "And although this study can't claim to investigate cause and effect, it can still say that there are a lot of other factors that determine sexual behaviors, so maybe we should put the debate into a larger perspective instead of being just one-sided."
Susan Tortolero, an associate professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at The University of Texas in Houston, told Medpage Today that the study had some flaws, including potential bias because people most likely to answer an online survey about sex may be more likely to try a variety of sexual behaviors. However, she believed that the study did show other factors besides watching porn may shape a teen's sexual prowess.
"So it really confirms that it's not one thing, it's not just exposure to pornography or sexually explicit materials," Tortolero, who was not involved in the study, said. "It really is the entire environment that young people live in."
Hald pointed out that this study shows that parents should temper their reactions if they discover their child watches porn.
"They shouldn't worry as much ... if their child uses pornography, at least from a scientific point of view. It's not the Third World War, so to speak," he stated to Globe and Mail.