Image: Dr Megan Lim, Burnet Deputy Program Director, Behaviours and Health Risks
A landmark Burnet Institute study into the use of pornography by young Australians has shown an extremely high prevalence, and recommends that pornography be addressed in Australian secondary school sexuality education programs.
The study, the first of its kind in Australia in the smartphone era, found associations between pornography use and potentially harmful outcomes such as mental health problems, and sexual activity at a younger age.
Lead author Dr Megan Lim, Burnet’s Deputy Program Director, Behaviours and Health Risks, said she was surprised at how commonly pornography was viewed by Australians aged 15-29 who took part in the study.
“All the young men in our study said they’d seen pornography, and so did the majority of women. They also reported seeing pornography at quite high frequency,” Dr Lim said.
“Around 80 percent of young men said they watched weekly, and among the women who watched pornography, nearly two-thirds viewed at least monthly.
“While we’re not clear on what kind of influence it might be having on their sexual development, with such high rates of use pornography needs to be considered in teaching people about sex in a changing world.
“The findings of this study have important implications for designing sexuality education.”
The study authors recommend that age-appropriate educational programs be implemented from the formative years of high school, if not sooner, and should address issues such as the prevalence and practice of heterosexual anal sex in the ‘real world’ as opposed to pornography.
Other findings of the study, based on an online survey of 941 participants recruited via social media in 2015, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, showed:
- Frequent users of pornography are more likely to be male and well-educated
- The average age of first exposure to pornography is declining
- The median age of first viewing is 13 years for boys and 16 years for girls
- Young people identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (GLBTIQ) watch pornography more frequently and from a younger age
- Interventions such as age verification and internet filtering software are not likely to be effective in preventing a motivated young person’s access to pornography
- There’s a correlation between the use of pornography and poor mental health.
“It is unclear whether pornography is a causal factor in poor mental health or an indicator of underlying problems,” Dr Lim said.
“In either case, it’s a concern, and those involved in treating young people with mental health problems may want to consider whether pornography is a problem for some clients.”
Dr Lim said increased viewing of pornography among GLBTIQ young people may reflect a lack of information in mainstream culture around non-heteronormative sexual behaviour.
“People who don’t identify as heterosexual are often excluded from sexual education at school which is often very focused on hetero-normative sexual behaviour,” she said.
“That’s anecdotally one of the reasons they seek out pornography, so they can see more diverse representations of sexuality to help them find out what they’re interested in, and attracted to.”
This research was supported by The AMP Tomorrow Makers Fund.