Despite claims that the ubiquity of Internet porn is over-sexualizing young people, the teen birth rate is lower than ever, suggesting the flow of information is making some impact on sexual behavior.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
The U.S. teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low, suggesting the Internet’s onslaught of sexually explicit images and the rise of sexting are not prompting dangerous sexual behavior resulting in childbirth.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the easy availability of sexual content on the Internet, groups and parents advocate open discussions with adolescents about the proliferation of porn and sexual information available online, instead of trying to hide it or forbid viewing — and the open dialogue could help teens connect behavior with consequences.
Teenagers are tech fanatics, prone to near-constant texting, tweeting and Facebook use. Internet-inspired slang litters their lexicon, dating rituals unfold on Facebook and get chronicled on Tumblr, and graphic sexual scenarios freely available online can inspire and guide early sexual behavior.
Through some lenses, teenaged technological obsession can inspire less-than-optimal behavior, especially cyber-bullying. And some researchers worry that exposure to Internet pornography can warp teenage sexuality, prompting some parents to limit online time.
Many young people get the bulk of their sexual education through watching explicit videos, browsing around websites and discussing their findings with friends, especially in places without sexual education classes and conservative social mores. The New York Times reported only 13 states in the U.S. require accurate information during sex education, so sometimes students are flat-out misinformed or kept in the dark by their schools.
This means the Internet increasingly supersedes classroom and at-home educations about sexuality. Instead of hearing about intercourse for the first time in health class or at home with a parent, young people can pull up explicit videos of the act itself online, and they fill the vacuum created by negligible classroom explanations with information and images online.
More Porn, Less Babies
Although the vast array of porn and sexually explicit information available on the Internet can leave a negative impression on young minds, the Internet and mobile technology are also fantastic educational resources, and teenagers are using them to come to terms with sexuality in healthy ways, likely contributing to the decline in teen pregnancies in the U.S.
In Case You’re Curious, Planned Parenthood’s texting service aimed at curious adolescents, allows teenagers confused, intrigued or concerned about an aspect of sexuality to discreetly find answers to their questions from a reputable source.
Bedsider, developed by the National Campaign to Prevent Unplanned Pregnancy, also provides direct, easy-to-understand sexual health information online, and uses conversational language and entertaining videos to appeal to younger demographics.
Sex::Tech, an annual conference gathering health and technology professionals to discuss how technology can positively impact the sexual health of teens all over the world, focuses on the helpful aspects technology can bring to the table. Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS), the program that hosts the conference, also provides a service that sends teenagers text message factoids about sexual health, called Hookup.
MTV started a program called Savage U, featuring sex columnist Dan Savage. In the show, he visits various college campuses and discusses sexual health and etiquette questions. The program exposes the holes young people have in their sexual education even as they matriculate at universities, and the misconceptions that can arise from a pornography-and-movie based sexual education.
Of course, technology is not the only driving force lowering teen birth rates: better access to contraception plays an enormous role, and while critics are divided over the efficacy of abstinence-only education, schools that do have comprehensive sexual health programs usually see dips in their teen pregnancy rates.
The Web as a Resource
So, the Web is full of sexy stuff, including valuable resources for teens looking for information. But it’s difficult for parents and educators to help adolescents steer clear of pornography and misogynistic forums and sites while still allowing them the freedom necessary to explore sexual health resources online, especially if the young people feel embarrassed about their questions or uncomfortable looking for the information around adults.
Without severely restricting teen use of mobile devices hooked up to the Internet, it is nearly impossible to keep an eye on what adolescents are looking at online. Some tech-savvy parents install filters on home computers and personal mobile devices, making it difficult to reach racy sites. This will help parents control what their children see online, but two problems remain.
First, adolescents are likely to share pornographic images with friends, meaning classmates with less diligent parents can show students the images. This is fairly inevitable, and beyond home-schooling there isn’t a lot parents can do to keep a round-the-clock eye on their child.
The second problem is trickier: curious adolescents with sexual sites blocked on their computer may not be able to use the sites that will help them learn about sexuality in a healthy way.
Studies show young people who understand the consequences of unsafe sex and decide to take a proactive approach to their own sexuality end up with lower teen pregnancy and STI rates, so giving teenagers freedom to explore the Internet may end up helping them more than seeing graphic images hurts them.
At the same time, the pervasiveness of pornography means parents will have to guide and talk to their children about sex and online etiquette thoroughly to avoid predators and warped gender roles.