Does looking at explicit images of sex damage a child's ability to have healthy relationships?
To date there has been no broad study of the question, but the psychologists ABCNEWS.com spoke to mostly agreed that their experience dealing with children in their practices indicates that boys who look at violent, raw images often develop a disrespectful attitude towards girls, while girls seem to become accepting of that kind of attitude from boys.
"It gives children a very negative message about sex, that it is connected with lewdness, rather than being attached to the human body and with a loving relationship," child and family therapist and author Meri Wallace said.
Beyond the emotional and psychological damage the images might do to youngsters, there is also the threat of physical harm not just from engaging in unprotected sex, but from coming to believe that the abuse shown on some sites or the images of children engaging in sex with adults is normal, the psychologists said.
"If the only information they're getting is fairly unfiltered, uncensored raw images from Web sites and they're not getting responsible information, they're going to make some pretty poor choices," said St. Louis University School of Medicine professor Dr. Ken Haller, who has been involved in an American Academy of Pediatrics initiative to study the impact of media, including the Internet, on children.
The Bush administration has been using those concerns as part of the basis for its drive to force public libraries and schools to install filters on computers used by the public or students, but the issue was powerfully brought home by the death this spring of a 13-year-old Connecticut girl who reportedly engaged in cybersex in Internet chat rooms and had a sexual relationship with a 24-year-old man who is accused of her murder.
The man said that he killed the girl accidentally, strangling her during consensual rough sex. Police said that the alleged encounter that ended in the girl's death was not her first with the accused man, and also might not have been her first with a man she met through the Internet.
A First Study
Despite the anecdotal evidence of that case and others like it, and of experiences child and family psychologists say they have had in their practices, there has been no study that would provide proof of the potential damaging effect on children of viewing raw images of sexual violence, but the National Institutes of Health has commissioned a 5-year project to examine the issue.
Ralph DiClemente, an Emory University behavioral scientist who received a $3 million grant from the NIH, said the study will examine 1,000 randomly selected adolescents' exposure to sexual content on the Internet and its effect on their emotional health by attempting to track which sites youngsters look at and by examining the development of their attitudes towards sex and relationships.
He said that recent data indicates that 60 percent to 70 percent of adolescents who use the Web wind up on pornographic sites, either on purpose or accidentally, and even if they don't stumble on any of the 400,000 adult sites themselves, they might wind up receiving links to them in their e-mail.
DiClemente pointed to the many studies of how violence in movies and on television seems to affect youngsters. Many studies have indicated that the more violence kids see, and the more graphic the images, the more likely they are to act in an aggressive or violent manner.
A report released in February by the Department of commerce said that 90 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 have access to a computer, 75 percent of kids 14-17 years old use the Internet regularly — figures that are only expected to grow.
Dangerous Building Blocks?
What concerns the doctors ABCNEWS.com spoke to was not necessarily the fact of children viewing pictures of naked people, or even seeing images of sex, but rather the kind of images that are out there.
Previous generations of parents might have worried about their children getting ahold of magazines like Playboy, but if the pictures of smiling women cavorting naked on a beach, in the bath or in a bed that typically appeared there carried a subtext that women are sex objects, some of the Web sites out there shout that opinion at the top of their lungs.
"Most of those magazines were predominantly just women and they were naked to some degree and they were modeling," DiClemente said. "The Net shows multiple people having sex, people being beaten while having sex, people having sex with animals. The scope of activities is off the seismic charts, plus it's streaming video and audio as opposed to looking at six pages in a magazine — that's really frightening."
"They can't just put it into their world view, because they don't have one," he continued. "This becomes one of those building blocks that they're going to put into their world view, and that's what we don't want. It's a lot harder to change someone's views once they're established than it is to try to instill healthy views to start with."
Particularly for pre-pubescent children and youngsters just entering puberty, being confronted with graphic images of sex can stunt the development of a child's own conception of what a relationship — both emotional and physical — should be.
"It can rob a child of fantasy, by filling what would have been filled by fantasy, with concrete images that would never have entered their heads," said Dr. Mark Sossin, president of the New York Association of Early Childhood and Infant Psychologists.
The Filter Between Their Ears
Clicking once on a site featuring women having sex with barnyard animals or being raped isn't likely to untrack a child who has an understanding of what a good relationship is and who has someone to talk to about anything that seems disturbing, but that is not the case for every youngster.
"For kids who don't have a solid sense of what relationships are about and don't have a sense of a normal healthy sexual relationship in a loving relationship — I think that these kids might not just be sexually excited by the sexuality they see, but also might see it as a model for what a relationship should be," Sossin said.
The Internet also allows children to take game-playing to a dangerous level, allowing them to go into chat rooms, perhaps make up a character for themselves and play out the things they might have seen on an adult site, the way they might play a game drawn from a movie or TV show they saw.
"You're able to make yourself up," DiClemente said. "Unfortunately you can't disentangle fiction from reality, until you're in a motel room, an ice cream parlor, a movie theater and then it's really frightening, you're in this incredible gender and power disparity."
Psychologists and Internet experts agree that while parents are wise to try such measures as installing Internet filters and keeping computers in parts of the house where kids can't use them without adults being able to casually pass by and see what they're looking at, the best answer is not in technology, but in communication.
"You have to assume that when kids are looking for porn, they'll get to it," said Perry Aftab, the executive director of Wiredpatrol.org. "The best filter is the one between your kids' ears," she said.
To activate that filter, parents need to openly address sexuality with their children, and not just the "birds and the bees," but how sex fits into a loving relationship.
"Parents can really take care to give kids a reference point for what's healthy about love," Sossin said. "That offers a protection and a prevention."
‘A Parent's Obligation’
Of course sex is not the easiest thing for many people to talk about, and to do it without moralizing or potentially instilling a sense of shame in youngsters is even harder, Sossin admitted. But he said the more open that parents can be to their children's questions, the more honest and non-judgmental and the more informed about what is on the Internet, the better, he said.
"Parents need to make it clear, they need to make children's curiosity available for discourse, both about what's out there and about their own relationship," he said.
Haller said parents need to talk to children about what they see on Web sites, and that they should make sure they know what sites their kids have looked at — and look at them themselves.
"If they find something disturbing, it's the parents' obligation to say what they feel about it," Haller said. "It's important for parents to initiate conversation, to say, 'What did you see? What did you think of it? Do you think that's how people should interact?'"
"We've got to try," DiClemente said. "If we don't try, that creates a vacuum, and this media will fill that vacuum right up. We've got to create an atmosphere where kids feel that in any situation they've got somebody they can trust, who cares about them and who they can turn to."
If not, he said, there may be somebody waiting in an Internet chat room.