By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
"Porn has always been around but its format has
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.
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, Frances
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.
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
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
"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."
Frances 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
"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
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.
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