Rise in sexual violence may be connected to exposure of children to pornographic images

A recent study revealed information that many parents may find troubling: nearly one in 10 young people have engaged in some type of sexual violence, by either coercing or forcing some type of sexual contact upon someone else. The study also suggests a connection between this behavior and being exposed to violent pornographic images. Michael Rich, MD, MPH, Boston Children’s media expert and director of the Center on Media and Child Health, shares his thoughts on what parents need to take away from this eye-opening report.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Investigating a health risk behavior once thought to be restricted to adults, research published last week in JAMA Pediatrics found that nearly 10 percent of adolescents reported having forced sex with others or committing sexual violence. The most frequent age of first committing sexual violence was 16; 98 percent of those who first committed sexual violence at 15 or younger were male, but by 18 and 19, males (52 percent) and females (48 percent) were equally involved.

Those who reportedly committed sexual violence were significantly more likely to have used media that portrayed violent sex (hurting a partner while having sex), sexual situations (kissing, fondling and non-violent sex) and non-sexual violence (fighting, shooting and killing), as opposed to those who reported not committing sexual violence.

Research on the effects of violent media has shown that while “copycat” imitation of media may be rare, exposure to media violence shifts expectations about violence for many users who come to accept it as a means of resolving conflicts, are more likely to use it and are less likely to defend its victims.

While more research is needed to better understand other risk factors, the prominent use of online pornography among sexually violent adolescents is particularly disconcerting. Easy access to online pornography may have changed first explorations of sex and sexuality for today’s youth: Rather than learning about sex as a trusting, intimate communication of love, they are encountering it as a commodity that can be bought, traded for, and, if necessary, taken.

When young people’s primary education about sex is through pornography, they see sex portrayed without the 4 “C”s—contraception, consequences, commitment and consent. They see it portrayed as something that everyone wants and enjoys, regardless of what they say they want. That can leave the definition of forced sex and sexual violence unclear for many young people, thus increasing the risk of forced sexual activity. In addition, this portrayal can increase the prevalence of risky sexual encounters, like having multiple partners (which increases physical risk) and engaging in casual sex that is less emotionally engaged (which increases psychological risk).

While many parents do not know (and often do not want to know) what their children are doing online, this research reminds us that we can no longer afford to believe that the media they consume has no effect on whom they become and how they behave. Children and adolescents spend more time in the digital domain than in school or any other waking activity, so we need to parent them as effectively in the online space as we do IRL (in real life)—that way, we can help support their mental, physical, emotional and sexual health.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®

For more information on how young people may react to online pornography, please read this blog where Rich answers the questions of a mother who recently discovered her son was watching X-rated films online.

If you have a media-related parenting question you’d like to ask, send it via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.