Real Healing

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Overexposed and Under-Prepared: The Effects of Early Exposure to Sexual Content

Is the Internet impacting sexual development?

teen shocked by something on the Internet
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“They grow up so fast,” parents often lament. Today, children are being sexualized earlier and earlier, in part because they are exposed to sexual material in movies, television, music and other media earlier than ever. With widespread access to the Internet, curious teens may accidentally or intentionally be exposed to millions of pages of material that is uncensored, sexually explicit, often inaccurate and potentially harmful.

So what? If kids don’t understand it, how can they be affected by it? Even if young children can’t understand sex or its role in relationships, the images they see can leave a lasting impression. It’s a basic premise of marketing that what we watch, read and direct our attention toward influences our behavior. And, as any marketer knows, sex sells. That’s why we see products and services that have nothing to do with sex being marketed in increasingly sexualized ways.

Children as young as 8 and 9 are coming across sexually explicit material on the Internet and in other media. Although research is just beginning to assess the potential damage, there is reason to believe that early exposure to sexual content may have the following undesirable effects:

Early Sex. Research has long established that teens who watch movies or listen to music that glamorizes drinking, drug use or violence tend to engage in those behaviors themselves. 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. Research also shows that teens who listened to music with degrading sexual references were more likely to have sex than those who had less exposure.

Why are teens more likely to have sex after being exposed to sexual content in the media? Just as we read specific books and show educational movies to our children in hopes that they learn lessons from the characters, the media provides a type of sex education to young people. Media messages normalize early sexual experimentation and portray sex as casual, unprotected and consequence-free, encouraging sexual activity long before children are emotionally, socially or intellectually ready.

High-Risk Sex. The earlier a child is exposed to sexual content and begins having sex, the likelier they are to engage in 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.

Sex, Love and Relationship Addictions. Not every child who is exposed to sexual content will struggle with a mental health disorder, but 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. With the widespread availability of explicit material on the Internet, these problems are becoming more prevalent and are surfacing at younger ages.

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. For some people, habitual use of pornography may prompt a desire for more violent or deviant material, including depictions of rape, torture or humiliation. If people seek to act out what they see, they may be more likely to commit sexual assault, rape or child molestation.

Preserving Our Children’s Youth

Early exposure to sexual content in the media may have a profound impact on children’s values, attitudes and behaviors toward sex and relationships. Unfortunately, media portrayals do not always reflect the message parents want to send. Here are a few ways that you as a parent can ensure your message is heard:

• Know what your children are watching, playing and listening to and take advantage of teachable moments to discuss any inappropriate content or behaviors with them.

• Set and enforce limits around screen time.

• Make use of Internet filters and parental controls.

• Share your family’s values and expectations regarding sex and relationships.

• Talk to your child about media representations of sex, relationships and gender roles and teach them to question the accuracy and intent of the messages they receive.

• Model healthy, respectful relationships and self-worth.

For most families, banning media from the home isn’t a realistic option. After all, most 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of seven and a half hours to media in a typical day, according to a 2009 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and more than half of that content contains sexual images or references. The goal isn’t to avoid the issue, but to approach it head-on so that your children learn about sex and relationships from their most trusted source: you.

Carolyn Ross, M.D, M.P.H., is an expert in Eating Disorders, Addictions, and Integrative Medicine, and author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook

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