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A survey of teens' exposure to porn shows some worrying results

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70% of teenagers who’ve seen porn weren’t actively looking for it when first exposed.

One way researchers can quantify their “esteem” is their h-index. It’s a complicated measure of how much uptake  – the number of citations – your research has received in the academic community. A higher number is better.

The big names in social psychology include Roy Baumeister, whose work has been cited more than 160,000 times, obedience study author Stanley Milgram, who has 36,000 citations, and in New Zealand, University of Auckland professor Margaret Wetherell, with 48,000.

But they all pale against Albert Bandura, who weighs in with more than half a million citations of his work, and an h-index of 185. He is both prolific and influential and has two enduring legacies.

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The first is the notion that how capable you feel is not only vital in whether you decide to do something, but a triggerpoint for intervention. If you don’t think you can quit smoking, then you’re not going to try.

The other is his Bobo Doll study: kids who watch an actor beat up a doll are more likely to beat up the doll when left alone than are children who watch an actor play peacefully with Bobo.

That’s obvious to any parent. And anyone who’s been a child. It’s called observational learning – doing the same as those around you.

The study is topical, with the recent release by the Office of Film and Literature Classification of a report headlined on its website “Young people and porn – the real story”. It follows a survey by the censors’ office of 2000 14-17-year-olds about their exposure to, and attitudes towards, pornography.

If you have a teen in your life, the odds are good they’ve seen porn. Here are some of the key findings: two-thirds of respondents say they’ve seen porn and a quarter of all teens had seen porn before age 12; 9% of girls and 21% of boys view porn at least monthly; three-quarters consider pornography as a means to learn about sex; and most – by a long way – think porn can influence how people think and behave.

US psychologist Albert Bandura: prolific and influential. Photo/Supplied

Disconcertingly, 70% of those who’ve seen porn weren’t actively looking for it when first exposed. Even more worrying is that 70% of those who’ve been exposed to porn have witnessed violence, aggression or non-consensual “activity”. Remember Bobo?

Bandura’s Bobo Doll study encouraged lots of research into the effect of witnessing violent media. And there have now been a fair number of similar studies in relation to pornography. As usual, the results are complicated.

Although there’s no one-to-one relationship between witnessing violence and violent behaviour, it’s certainly the case that, for at least some people, there is a negative effect of porn on both attitudes and behaviour towards women.

Most young people who’ve seen porn think it should be harder to access, and that includes most regular viewers. Out of the mouths of babes, methinks.

In coming up with suggestions for limiting the harm, the censors take on board what the surveyed young people say they want. They recommend (trying to) regulate access more to make it harder for youngsters to view porn – it shouldn’t be easy to “accidentally” see porn.

They also advocate providing tools and information about dealing with pornography specifically, as well as “more and better” education on sex and sexuality.

If you’re a parent worried about porn, a good start is to visit classificationoffice.govt.nz.

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.