Pornography Use and Mental Health in US College Students

Recently, researchers from the Franciscan University of Steubenville published the results of their study looking at pornography use and mental health in college students.   Their aim was to explore any relationship they might find between pornography use and mental health concerns such as loneliness, depression, and stress in students.

The study found that 56.6% of the students (male and female) had viewed pornography at some point in their lifetime with male respondents reporting significantly more use than female respondents.  The study also found that the emotional state of loneliness predicted depression, anxiety and stress in the students. 

While not the main focus of the study, what I found most interesting were the data about the age of first exposure to pornography and how that occurred.  The age of first exposure to pornography is often younger than most people imagine. This is especially the case for parents who often do not even talk to their children about sex and/or pornography until after the average age of first exposure.

This study found that the majority of males (63.7%) were exposed to pornography between the ages of 9 and 13 years old.  Thirty nine percent of female respondents reported exposure in the same age category. For males, the primary method of first exposure was personal curiosity, meaning that the boys were curious about sex and pornography and looked it up themselves.  For females, they were most often exposed to pornography through unintentional exposure. 

The take aways from this study, for me, in clinical work and in talking to parents about sex and pornography, is that we really, really have to find a way to talk about these subjects when children are young.  If almost 64% of boys and 39% of girls are exposed to pornography between the ages of 9 to 13, discussions on the topic that happen after this age range will come as too little too late.

Parents have to find the courage and resources to talk to their children about sex, sexuality and pornography in age appropriate ways from the time they are young.  I know this makes most parents very uncomfortable.  However, children who have some knowledge about sexuality and no shame are more likely to not turn to the internet to answer sexual questions or to come to a care giver when they have an unintentional exposure to the material.

I have written about it before, but the Educateempowerkids.org programs are amazing.  They now offer books, webinars and a podcast to help you talk to your children about anything, including sex.

Reference  Camilleri, C., Perry, J.T. & Sammut, S (2021).  Compulsive internet pornography use and mental health:  A cross-sectional study in a sample of university students in the United States. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-24

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