BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 12:31 GMT
Tangled web
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Search engine
Porn has always been around but its format has evolved
As a European-wide project is launched to examine children's use of online pornography, figures show one in four teenagers with access to the net view porn at least once a month. For some it's an obsession, for others, an adolescent rite of passage.

Almost from day one, the internet became a byword for porn among the general public. And with it came concerns about the effect such ready availability of sexually explicit images would have on society, particularly on young people.

You don't have to go online to find sexual imagery, of course. These days, a passing glace at mainstream adverts, music videos and magazines will yield a good deal of bare flesh. But it's the graphic content of what can be found on the net - home to an estimated 250 million pages of pornography - and the ease with which it can be distributed, that concerns many parents.

Figures obtained by the BBC from Nielsen NetRatings reveal one in four of those aged 12 to 16 who goes online at home looks at sexual images at least once a month. That is one in three among boys and one in five girls.

A separate study by the London School of Economics claimed, this week, six in 10 children in the UK were regularly being exposed to porn, mostly as a result of viewing explicit websites accidentally. The study helped launch a Europe-wide research project looking into how young people use the net, called EU Kids Online.

Malcolm at his PC
It almost lodges itself into your mind, like a parasite sucking away the rest of your inner life
Malcolm, 16
While some say porn is just a part of growing up for many teenagers, others believe it could be sowing the seeds of dysfunction.

Malcolm, aged 16, from the West Country, used to spend three to four hours a day watching pornography online, especially gothic-inspired sex, until he realised it was affecting his drama study and social life.

"It almost lodges itself into your mind, like a parasite sucking away the rest of your inner life and you kind of use it to answer everything and anything. It's a drug."

He sought help from a psychosexual therapist in London, Francis Emeleus, who discovered he was bullied at school.

"There was a crossed wire between Malcolm's sexuality and his anger, which is something I worked through with him in a straightforward and cognitive way," she says.

"The fact he was a teenager and he was self-aware helped me to find a route through to what was going on. He found a clean route to his anger as opposed to acting it out with a woman."

Following the treatment, Malcolm found the websites that he had been hooked on were suddenly less appealing.

Bluetooth sharing

But not everyone wants to kick the habit, or indeed thinks they have a problem. Darryl, 17, from Lincolnshire, views and shares porn with friends via Bluetooth on his mobile phone.

Darryl says looking at porn is normal
"If I didn't have work I'd be watching it constantly every day because it's something to do, like a drug," he says.

His female friends tell him they don't approve but he says it's normal.

"No-one can change my attitude to porn. I mean, I've been watching it for years. I'll carry on watching it, probably till I die. I see it as a normal thing and will always see it as a normal thing. No matter what people say."

Dr Emeleus says young people's relationships with porn are a new area of study and little is known about it. And while she believes porn can be a harmless and an integral part of growing up for hormonal teenagers, she thinks exposure to extreme forms is alarming.

"Using women or images as convenience in lieu of forming a relationship could impair the capacity to form a good relationship," she says. "I think particularly where the child doesn't witness a good relationship in the parental home, then the situation could compound itself."

If the porn is violent, then that behaviour could be enacted in real life, if social or moral feelings don't keep it in check.

"The more you encourage the objectification of women the more likely it is that sexual anomalies do emerge," she says.

But sex and relationship psychologist Petra Boynton says the porn "problem" among teenagers is often exaggerated and many young people are without their own internet access. And using extreme cases as examples does not help the debate.

It's expected from puberty that porn is a normal rite of passage for boys
Dr Petra Boynton
For boys, exposure to porn can lead to anxiety about their bodies and their sexual performance, she says, while girls are "denied" access to it under the misconception they are not interested.

"It's expected from puberty that porn is a rite of passage for boys. They hit 12, get randy and look at boobs.

"For girls the introduction to puberty is to lecture them about getting pregnant. There's no expectation that they will be aroused - it's a passive sexuality that just isn't true." Her comments, though, conflict with Nielsen's findings that 20% of girls regularly access porn online.

The effect of pornography on society has long been a polarised debate, and the highly vocal feminist Catharine MacKinnon sounds a forceful voice against pornography, believing it dehumanises women.

Dr Boynton, however, calls for a wider critical debate on sexual education and young people.

Teens Hooked on Porn is on BBC Three on Thursday 8 February at 2100 GMT.

Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.

I have two sons, 13 and 15. I know they have both looked at porn - the younger one has a penchent for busty Russian ladies. I saw no point in banning them from the net. Instead I explained the exploitation of vulnerable people / the accidentally going into paedophile sites which would get me or their father into serious trouble and about the sites set up to download viruses etc. Letting my son know I knew which sites he'd been on soon curtailed the habit. However, he did lead me onto a very informative 'how to have great sex' site, for which I thanked him!
Mendi, Rutland

The only difference is that now teenagers can see it online instead of stealing their dads' or older brothers' dirty mags or videos. But there is now easier access to contents that is illegal in the UK. When I was a teenager in the 80s everybody knew where to get hold of hard core porn from overseas, but I don't recall anyone ever mentioning violent pornography that included rape that teenagers can now access at the click of a button.
Christine, UK

I was sickened to find evidence of my now ex-husband's online flirtation with a teenage girl; while I wouldn't describe the transcripts of their chat sessions as outright pornographic, they were overly suggestive. It's all very well saying that parents should monitor their teenagers' online activities, but my ex was clearly exploiting the fact that this girl's father was terminally ill at the time; she was clearly vulnerable, and still young enough to think it was 'cool' to have an older admirer. While teenage girls might not necessarily look for the same material as boys online, they are clearly looking for something.
Fay, Derby, UK

Porn is a powerful medium, especially to the impressionable. I used to watch it all the time and found I was looking at women and relationships as a vehicle for sex rather than attempting to develop a loving relationship and respecting women as individuals. Some porn can be useful in a relationship but much of it displays women as something without a brain with which to get off on.
Anon, London

I have two teenagers (1m,1f) whom I have bought up to make their own decisions about these things. I do not police their internet access and they know if they ask a question I will give them a full and frank answer. Consequently, they ask me about anything sexual because nothing is "dirty" or "lewd". Teach values, not censorship.
Sandra Davis, Newbury, Berks

Porn is a problem online, but the responsibility falls upon parents and NOT the state. Porn is not a new problem, the internet is new and parents have a responsibility to keep up with the technology that may expose their children to any danger whatsoever.
Simon, Bebington, Wirral

I look at porn all the time... gay porn that is, and I would ask Catharine MacKinnon how that "dehumanises women". Porn is not just all about women.
Matt, Macclesfield

I discovered my son had been looking at various porn sites (found it in the IE history) when he was about 14. At first I thought it was normal for a boy that age to want to look at naked women, but I had a look at what he'd been looking at, and I found the pictures disturbing. There was an unnaturalness to most of the pictures and violence in others. To me it was a turn off, but I was concerned it was giving him an "incorrect" view of what sexuality was.
CB, Milton Keynes, England

Internet porn starts before teenage years. My 8 year old came home upset about images he seen on a gay site at a friend's house. So I went and had a word with the parents who were unaware of what had gone on. I have since learnt of other primary school children accessing porn sites. People who promote porn as freedom of expression forget that once it is on the web there is no way of stopping it being viewed by children.
Concerned Parent, Beckenham

I'm a happily married man, with two lovely daughters (7 and 5). I have a respectable job and consider myself well-adjusted person (OK I lied, I work in IT). And I look at porn. Have done since puberty and I found my dad's stash in his work room. Has this over exposure to bodily parts turned me into a monstrous horror? No. Am I worried about my daughters accidentally finding porn on the internet? Yes. I filter and restrict their access for safety. And when they start by-passing the filters? I'll leave it at that. Why? Because it will have been a conscious decision on their part.
V, Northampton, UK

Pornography is not a "rite of passage" for teen boys rather it provides them with a distorted and misogynistic view of what comprises male and female sexuality. Pornography reinforces the widespread view that male sexuality is always dominant and controlling, with female sexuality as only submissive and responsive. Pornography dehumanises women's sexualities and eroticises male sexual exploitation of women.
Jennifer Drew, London

Given the tools to distinguish between healthy sexual behaviour and unacceptable treatment of women, most people will properly see the truly objectionable material for the ridiculous, abusive rubbish that it is, and discard it.
Andre Lucas, Newbury, Berkshire

How did they get these figures? Was it perhaps by simply asking a room full of nervous, giggly, body conscious, sexually aware teens about what they do in the privacy of their own bedrooms? I think that very few teenagers are going to be prepared make such a confession.
Tom Tank, Liverpool

An interest in sex is a healthy part of psychological development, and condemning it creates a fear of exposure for being "dirty" or "perverted", perpetuating clandestine behaviour. If sex and sexuality is "dirty" (as a subject), why do Brits keep reproducing? The sooner we grow out of this Catholic/Victorian hypocrisy, the sooner we can address the real problems eg: sexual crime of all kinds, or the compulsive behaviours mentioned.
Rob Christopher, London

I have longed for this debate as this area raises concern for me as well. I used to watch porn and would then feel guilty due to my religion. I would go without it for months, until one day I would 'accidentally' go onto a site again. I would then be back to square one and the habit would kick in again. I would then get so frustrated to the point where I would take the wires out for the internet. They are spot on- porn is a strong drug.
SMT, Ealing

There isn't much wrong with looking at porn in your teen years, I used to watch it rather frequently from around 13/14 now not so much as I have a girlfriend and I am more mature.
Dave Murray, Parkgate


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific