the warping of our teens' view of sex

Science shows that when it comes to dealing with emotions and impulses, our brains don't develop fully until we are in our mid-20s. But long before that our children are being confronted by an increasingly sexualised world. Clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune explores the problems of the internet generation and why it seems they have less empathy than their predecessors

Joanna Fortune

PORN, specifically increasingly easy access to online porn at younger and younger ages is, I believe, the most baleful threat to our children and childhood in general. Our children are watching it, seeking their sex education from it and it is warping their views of sex, intimacy, sexuality and relationships.

In my work with teenagers, I am hearing increasingly how exposure to graphic, sadistic and extreme online porn is sending boys a terrifying message of what they should expect from a relationship and sees girls being expected to do things that teens have seen in this material. A teenage girl told me that having pubic hair is unacceptable and "gross" and that if you want to get a boy to go out with you, you have to send him a naked photo of yourself to show you are "serious" about the relationship. Teenagers I have spoken with have disclosed that they have watched all kinds of online porn that they have accessed with minimal search words, including bestiality, sadomasochism, gangbangs and child pornography. These are teens from very healthy and normal backgrounds because there is no "type" of child that is more likely to be exposed to this material; it is all pervasive across our society.

I was recently sitting on a Luas behind two teenage boys about 15 years old who were looking at a teenage girl's Facebook page on their smart phones, when one said to the other: "Check that out, I would so rape that."

This was his way of saying he found her attractive, I understand that, but it is how he said it that struck me. Referring to her as "that" and not "her" objectified the girl in question and the expression of how he was attracted to her was in terms of how he would like to rape her, not meet her, date her, talk to her but specifically rape her.

I recounted this story to a friend over coffee and she told me something that had happened with her own nine-year-old son the week before. He had come home from school and told her they had been talking about boy things in the playground that day and when she asked him what kind of boy things he said "raping". These were four boys, aged eight to nine years of age, talking about rape in their primary school playground. She asked him what he understood by this word and he said: "Rape is when you force a girl to do sex and then kill her." Once again, he is nine years old and this was playground conversation.

We are hearing more and more about how young people are turning to the internet and, more specifically, to pornography for their sexual education. Teenagers are becoming increasingly desensitised to the, often degrading and violent, sexual content and as such teenage girls report being under immense pressure to perform (and teenage boys under the same pressure to expect and seek) so called "porn sex". Teenage boys are talking to me about how they cannot get the same pleasure out of being with a "real girl" as they can from watching the "porn girls".

This highly charged sexualisation has also altered the due weight and import given to language such as "rape", "slut", "whore", "bitch" among children and adolescents. It also carries serious implications for society and how we are equipping our children to relate to themselves and each other because sexual objectification is fast killing off the capacity for sexual and emotional intimacy among our teenagers.

The prefrontal cortex area of the teenage brain is not fully developed, and will not be until a person is in their mid-20s. This is the area of the brain that assesses situations, weighs up outcomes, makes judgments and ultimately controls impulses and emotions, it is also the area of the brain linked to understanding and reading responses in others. Neuro-imaging scans do show that the area of the teenage brain that is well developed is the nucleus accumbens, which is the area associated with pleasure and reward-seeking drives. This explains a lot of what we would call "typical teenage behaviour" but also when you consider the teenage brain immersed in exposure to violent sadistic online porn for prolonged periods of time what can happen.

The developing brain is unable to fully differentiate between fantasy and reality in this regard and as such young people's natural developmental pathways through their gradual emerging sexuality is short circuited. They are catapulted way ahead of where they should be developmentally and they cannot process it. It can be said that the base line for healthy/normal sexual desire and behaviour becomes skewed and altered following premature and/or prolonged immersion in viewing this sexually explicit and sadistic material. This then effects how teenagers form and develop their intimate relationships.

Researchers in the UK have established that these areas of the brain are altered in those who regularly use online pornography and/or access online pornography at a very young age. They conducted studies with brain MRIs by showing two sample groups, one of whom said they were regular porn-users and one who rarely or never used it. When flashing a variety of images in front of the two groups, interspersed with pornographic images, they noted little or no reaction in these brain areas of the non-porn using group, whereas the same images caused the areas of the brain in the porn users group to illuminate like turning Christmas lights on.

The UK is moving to implement the "default on" option, meaning that consumers will be asked when buying new computer systems whether or not they want such sites filtered automatically or left on. This would mean that access to online porn is blocked unless you opt in, giving parents a much greater degree of control when it comes to the access their children have to online porn. The expectation would be that mobile phone service providers would work alongside this to block access on handsets purchased by/for under-18s – though parents can already control this by not allowing their teenagers to have smart phones, instead have them using more basic handsets. Young children do not need, and should not have, a smart phone: the longer you can wait for your child to have one of these, the better it is. If your child does have a smart phone then the onus is on you as a parent to ensure you understand what it is you have put into your child's hand. Ask an assistant in one of the phone stores to show you the capacity of the handset and perhaps also ask your child to show you what the phone can do – this is one sure way of not only learning the capacity of the handset but also ascertaining the level of knowledge your child already has.

The opt-in model is not in lieu of parent-led sex education; moreover it is to supplement and support parents' role in protecting and informing their children in a safe and developmentally appropriate way. This is not mass hysteria, nor is it a rush to censorship, it is child-protection. Studies show that early exposure (ie at 14 years old and younger) to pornography is linked to significantly higher levels of deviant sexual behaviour, and specifically rape. There is evidence that the more pornographic material young people view, the more explicit is the material they seek out to achieve the same level of stimulation and the more difficult it becomes for them to develop and maintain an intimate relationship in the real world.

Remember that growing up in today's society is more difficult than the one we grew up in and the pressures/choices and risks teens take can be even more dangerous, stressful, and worrying than the ones we took a generation ago. Teens are meant to take risks, so allow them to do this – just try to make sure they're taking the right ones. The overall pornification and sexualisation of childhood is becoming all too pervasive and is further reaching than a contrived performance on a music awards show, though such events that capture the public psyche and attention are clear examples of what we are looking at.

We are now looking at the first generation in our society who will never get to say "before the internet", a generation growing up and developing while being "switched on 24-7". The average teenager will check their social media upwards of 60 times a day and we cannot underestimate the impact on the developing adolescent brain of being switched on 24-7. Teenagers are living their lives, their every waking thought and action, in a very public way and all of their personal data is being stored on privately owned servers, owned by large profit-making commercial entities. I am not opposed to the internet, I do believe the pros outweigh the cons and it is a very important part of society. However, I do oppose the premature adultification and short-circuiting of development in children and the consequences for this are far- reaching and impact on all of us.

We are all too familiar with the at times tragic consequences of being at the receiving end of nasty things said about you online, but demanding that the State regulates and somehow controls social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and is not the answer because I don't think it is the correct question to ask – rather consider the why: why is it our young people (and let's be honest it's not exclusively young people, there are many adult internet trolls out there) feel it is OK to denigrate and harass others, sometimes people they barely know and other times people they sit beside everyday at school/work once it's done online and not to their face?

In 2010, the University of Michigan measured the empathy levels in college students and compared them to previous generations at the same age (14,000 students over a 30-year period) and found that today's young people show significantly lower levels of empathy towards others than previous generations, with the biggest drop being after 2010 when empathy levels measure up to 40 per cent lower than their counterparts 30 years previously. This period marks the birth and rise of social media and young children/teens having smart phones with constant internet access.

So what is the difference between saying something online and to someone's face? I believe it is twofold – the degree of empathy that gets lost online and the fact that when you say something online about someone it doesn't feel like you are saying it to them, it doesn't feel real and therefore the potential consequences are not considered. It has become so easy to interact virtually that we are investing less and less time engaging with people at a personal level and this is having a profound effect on our empathy levels.

Children develop empathy skills at approximately three years of age onwards (though the capacity is building from infancy) through projective play, when we see an increase in narrative based play to re-enact real life events as a means of better understanding them. Engaging in this kind of play forces children to consider the perspectives of others and thereby develops empathy, capacity for critical thinking and the capacity for problem solving, all of which are developmentally essential and help to build our social intelligence levels, enabling us to read potentially dangerous situations and also develop and sustain relationships. What we are seeing now is a generation, so called "Generation Me", who have not successfully negotiated this stage, likely because of an increased focus on virtual play and virtual interaction with people who are not a physical part of their real world.

Modern parenting is totally different than ever before and it's important that parents feel supported in this journey. Parents have to become familiar with a whole new and ever-evolving technological world while keeping lines of communication open from the youngest ages to ensure that theirs is the message that teenagers default to when it comes to making choices and taking risks.

Joanna Fortune is a Clinical Psychotherapist, specialising in attachment, working with children and families for more than 12 years. She is founder of the Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. Email: Phone: 01-6976568 Twitter: @solamh