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Adolescence in the Age of Internet Porn

The role of loneliness and attachment style in teen porn use.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, pornography was something all teenagers knew about but had little experience with it. Some grocery stores even carried so-called gentlemen’s magazines, kept behind the customer service counter and with their cover photos hidden. All you could see were the titles—Playboy, Penthouse, and the like.

Once during a Boy Scout paper drive, we came across a discarded “nudie” magazine and hid it in the back of the truck. When the scoutmaster was otherwise occupied, we stole glances at the photos of naked women posing in alluring positions. At the end of the day, one of the boys tore out the centerfold and stuck it under his shirt to take home. That was a treasure of incalculable value to a teenage boy back then.

Nowadays, more porn than you can view in a thousand lifetimes is readily available thanks to the Internet. And this isn’t just centerfold photos. It’s videos of real people engaging in any variety of sexual act you can possibly image—much of it in high definition and most of it free.

It’s only natural for teenagers to be curious about sex. And since they’re also the largest single group of Internet users, you can be sure they’re big consumers of online pornography. In a recent article published in the journal Psychological Reports, Israeli psychologists Yaniv Efrati and Yair Amichai-Hamburger explore the dynamics driving adolescent use of online pornography.

For this study, the researchers administered online surveys to over 700 Israeli teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 18. The sample included roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. Furthermore, the parents of each participant provided written consent for their child to take part in the survey.

Previous studies on adult viewing of online pornography suggest two psychological factors that predict the frequency of use. The first factor is loneliness. Many adults report using online pornography as a way of relieving sexual tension when no partner is available as well as to abate unpleasant feelings of being alone.

The second factor is attachment style, which refers to the ways in which people seek out and maintain close relationships with others. Those who are securely attached find both solace and enjoyment in the interactions they have with friends and significant others.

Conversely, those who are anxiously attached desperately seek out intimate partners, but their insecurities lead them to sabotage those relationships. Likewise, those who are avoidantly attached suffer from unsuccessful relationships because they eschew intimacy, seeking to be self-reliant instead. The researchers asked if these two factors, loneliness and attachment style, were also important drivers of pornography use among teenagers.

In addition, the researchers looked at two factors they thought might shed light on the incidence of adolescent pornography use. The first factor is what they called “offline” sexual experience, that is, sex with real-life partners. It could be that teenagers were using online porn as a substitute for partnered sexual experiences. The second factor was religiosity. Among adults, porn use is typically lower for those who are highly religious, and the same may also be true for adolescents.

The results may be shocking for some parents. However, they fall squarely in line with the findings from research on adult use of Internet porn.

First, about half of the respondents indicated that they were sexually active offline. Likewise, about half of the respondents reported that they were regular users of online pornography. Analyses showed that these were largely the same people. Teens who are sexually active in real life are also the main consumers of online sexual activity, which included not just porn use but also acts such as sexting. Thus, teens aren’t using porn as a substitute for sex but rather as an additional avenue for sexual release.

Religiosity also largely coincided with a lack of both offline and online sexual activity. That is, those who described themselves as highly religious tended to abstain from all sexual activity, whereas teens who were sexually active, whether in real life or online, tended to describe themselves as non-religious.

When it came to attachment styles, the teens in this survey responded similarly to their adult counterparts. Among those who used online pornography, teens with a secure attachment style used porn less frequently, and mostly only in cases where they also reported high levels of loneliness. The authors speculated that these securely attached teens were able to largely depend on relationships with significant others to meet their sexual needs, just as is the case with securely attached adults. For them, pornography is a stopgap rather than a regular means of sexual release.

Teens high in anxious attachment reported high levels of online pornography use, and this was true regardless of their reported level of loneliness. Anxiously attached persons are needy in their relationships, and they often engage in risky sexual behaviors to attract and keep partners that they ultimately feel unworthy of. The anxiously attached adopt a highly sexualized style of interaction with others not so much because they’re lonely but because they fear they might become lonely.

Finally, teens high in avoidant attachment reported medium levels of Internet pornography use. Furthermore, their online sexual behavior was driven mostly by their feelings of loneliness. People high in avoidant attachment tend to deny their need for close personal relationships, preferring to be self-sufficient instead. The researchers speculate that only “when the sense of loneliness breaks through their defenses” do they seek solace through sexual activities, be those online or in the real world.

In the end, this study shows us that teenage sexuality—both offline and online—mirrors that of adults. It also suggests that patterns of adult sexuality start in adolescence, as has long been suspected.

As a baby boomer, I grew up in a time when sex was a taboo subject. But as the researchers point out, pornography use is now seen by the younger generation as a completely normal activity. They also have much more open views on sexuality in general than those of their parents' generation. We do our children a great disservice when we send them negative messages about their emerging sexuality. Instead, we need to guide them into healthy patterns of sexual behavior that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

References

Efrati, Y. & Amichai-Hamburger, Y. (2019). The use of online pornography as compensation for loneliness and lack of social ties among Israeli adolescents. Psychological Reports, 122, 1865-1882.

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