Internet porn became a fleeting campaign issue last week when GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, calling the Obama administration soft on enforcing obscenity laws, claimed that children were being harmed by online smut.
"Obviously Congress ... understood that hard-core pornography is very damaging, particularly to young people, and that exposure on the Internet can be very damaging to a lot of folks who are in all sorts of settings," he said on ABC's "This Week" program.
It's clear the Web has brought a universe of explicit images within easy reach of adolescents, but that's about the only indisputable point when it comes to kids and porn. Numerous studies that have tried to examine sexually explicit material's effect on young people have failed to produce straightforward answers.
Some researchers have concluded that exposure to X-rated images correlates with permissive, even callous sexual attitudes and risky sexual behavior. But others say excessive porn-seeking appears to be more a symptom of trouble than a cause.
"Kids who do view it and view it on a more regular basis are isolated socially," said Dennis Frank, assistant professor of counseling and human services at Roosevelt University. "They spend a lot of time by themselves, with little parental or family involvement. In these cases, it really does begin impacting their view of sexuality, makes them view women as sex objects and sex as just a physical act without any emotional ties."
Sexual imagery is as old as art itself, and catching a glimpse of the forbidden has long been a ritual of childhood. One 1985 study found that the average boy first looks at a Playboy magazine at age 11, while the average girl first views one at age 12.
But the Internet, some believe, has brought a dark edge to that adolescent curiosity.
"The amount of explicit material available free of charge and after just a few clicks is disturbing," said Carolyn Bronstein, a DePaul University scholar who has written a book about the feminist anti-pornography movement.
Children's Web browsing, she said, can lead them "quite unintentionally to images that can be frightening and confusing, and to acts that really ought to be reserved for adult users only. For anyone who has stumbled upon the hard-core material available online, it's quite clear that this is a far different experience than discovering some old issues of Playboy magazine in the corner of a basement."
Some scholarship suggests that Internet porn has become a fact of life for American adolescents. One study that queried college students found that 93 percent of males and 62 percent of females had viewed graphic sexual images online before the age of 18.
Discerning the effects of that exposure, though, is tricky.
Some studies have suggested that young teens who regularly view sexually explicit websites are more likely to exhibit troubling behavior, including substance abuse, early sexual activity and retrograde attitudes about gender roles.
Santorum's campaign website goes further, claiming that "a wealth of research is now available demonstrating that pornography causes profound brain changes in both children and adults, resulting in widespread negative consequences."
The campaign did not respond to a request for those studies, and Rory Reid, a UCLA research psychologist who has studied the brain functions of hypersexual men, said that to his knowledge, such studies do not exist.
He said that while some research has indeed linked excessive porn consumption with personal problems, it has failed to demonstrate that pornography was the cause.
"It's the chicken-or-the-egg thing," he said. "Which came first? Were they depressed first and turned to porn, or was it the other way around?"
But Ralph DiClemente, a researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, said establishing strict causation is an unfairly high standard. If enough evidence points a certain way, parents, educators and lawmakers shouldn't need a "smoking gun" to be concerned, he said.
He is finishing a federally funded study that aims to provide some of the most precise answers yet about teens and Internet porn. Randomly selected young volunteers from around the country agreed to have software installed on their computers that allowed researchers to observe the websites they visited. Every two months, the teens answered survey questions designed to measure changes in attitude and behavior.
DiClemente said he couldn't reveal much about the results, but said it was clear that some of his subjects watched quite a bit of porn. A paper he aims to publish in a scientific journal will examine whether that appears to speed a child's initiation into sexual activity or affects sexual risk-taking.
"While they're seeing (pornography) on the computer, it may be telling them that that's what a relationship is: a lack of intimacy and a whole lot of risky sex," he said.
But one complication to the idea that porn influences behavior is evidence suggesting that young people are becoming more sexually conservative even as Internet pornography becomes more widespread.
A federal study released last year found that a declining percentage of teens are having sex. And figures from the Guttmacher Institute indicate that teen pregnancy rates are down sharply from the early 1990s, when Internet access was limited to academics and hobbyists.
"Right now, teens are looking like they're acting more responsibly than they were 10 or 20 years ago," said Jennifer Manlove, who studies adolescent sexuality for Child Trends, a Washington, D.C., research center.
Still, Alex Montesantos, 17, a junior at Elmhurst's York High School, said he believes ubiquitous online porn has produced a certain flippancy in his generation's views toward sex. Connecting the act with love has come to seem "lame or weird or awkward" among many of his peers, he said.
"They don't look at sex as consequential or emotional," he said. "They almost see it like you can do it for fun, hook up with someone you never met before. They don't necessarily see it as another generation would see it -- a very personal thing, a deep emotional connection."
Shira Tarrant, an author and gender studies professor at California State University Long Beach, said she thinks porn has had even subtler effects on young people. It has affected notions of female beauty, ideas of normal sexual behavior -- even certain grooming habits, she said.
But vilifying or censoring porn is ill-advised, she said: Adults should respond through education, reminding teens to summon their powers of critical thinking when they encounter sexually explicit material.
"Porn is like any other form of media," she said. "If I'm watching 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians,' I'm getting an idea of what sexy looks like. If I'm watching a music video, I'm being shown what sexy dancing looks like. It's a script given through media. Pornography is no different."
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