August 30, 2023, Durham, NC – As online pornography platforms become more accessible, adolescents are more regularly exposed to sexually explicit material, and at increasingly younger ages. Pornography often depicts male-perpetrated physical aggression paired with sexual activity, and studies have shown that adolescent pornography use is associated with adherence to traditional gender role norms, beliefs in notions of women as sex objects, and acceptance of dating and sexual violence. Given that these harmful beliefs may impact adolescents’ current and future sexual and relationship behaviors, and contribute to dating violence and sexual assault perpetration, it is important to understand how adolescents can be protected from the negative impacts of early pornography exposure.

iRT researchers Drs. Reina Evans-Paulson, Christina Dodson, and Tracy Scull conducted a study to examine how critical media attitudes may help protect adolescents from the harmful impacts of pornography on their sexual and relationship health. Results of the study were recently published in the academic journal, Sex Education.

Researchers have theorized that when adolescents have feelings of distrust towards media and question how realistic the messages in media really are, they may be less likely to be influenced by media messages. This study examined if critical media attitudes impact the relationship between the amount of pornography adolescents consume and their acceptance of traditional gender norms, dating violence, and rape myths (i.e., “false beliefs about rape and sexual assault that can reinforce harmful stereotypes and are used to justify or excuse acts of sexual violence”).1 Data was collected from computer-based questionnaires completed by 9th and 10th grade students in the United States.

The study found that overall, students who used pornography more frequently were more accepting of traditional gender role norms, rape myths, and dating violence. However, pornography use was only related to greater acceptance of rape myths and gender norms among students that were more trusting of media messages about sex (i.e., students that were less skeptical of media messages). For students that were less trusting of media messages about sex (i.e., those that were more skeptical of media messages), there was no relationship between pornography exposure and these negative outcomes. Also, students who showed less trust in media messages about sex were less accepting of dating violence. The study found that when students perceived media messages about teenage sexual health to be less realistic, they were less accepting of rape myths and traditional gender role norms. These findings highlight how impactful messages in pornography may be on adolescents’ beliefs about sex when adolescents do not have the skills to critically analyze media messages they are exposed to.

Results of this study indicate that critical media attitudes, specifically general feelings of distrust towards messages about sex in media, may protect adolescents from the harmful effects from pornography, and this points to the need for efforts to promote media skepticism in adolescents. Media literacy education programming is an effective approach to teaching adolescents skills to think critically about media, so they can detect, analyze, and form opinions about the unhealthy media messages they consume. This study provides further support for the use of media literacy education as part of sexual health education to help adolescents protect themselves from harmful media messages and promote adolescent health.

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  1. Evans-Paulson, R., Dodson, C. V., & Scull, T. M. (2023). Critical media attitudes as a buffer against the harmful effects of pornography on beliefs about sexual and dating violence, Sex Education, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2023.2241133