'We don't even know': Researcher calls for more study on effect of pornography on teenagers

The impact of porn consumption on children and young teens in Alberta remains deeply misunderstood, warns a leading researcher in youth sexual health.

'We're scared that if we talk to them about it, then they're going to go look at it,' Sonya Thompson says

Sonya Thompson, a former University of Alberta researcher, is calling for more research into the consumption of pornography among Alberta youth. (Getty Images)

The impact of porn consumption on children and teens in Alberta remains deeply misunderstood, warns a leading researcher in youth sexual health.

"We're scared that if we talk to them about it, then they're going to go look at it," said Sonya Thompson, a researcher and sexual health consultant. 

"We need to get over ourselves. This stuff is everywhere."

During the completion of her master's degree at the University of Alberta, Thompson began exploring the consumption of explicit content among youth.

As part of her study, she polled 425 students in Grade 8 across Alberta. In the anonymous survey, 88 per cent of boys and 72 per cent of girls told her they had seen sexually explicit content online. And 35 per cent of boys said they had seen porn too many times to count.

Despite the "scary" findings, the subject has remained largely unexplored in academia since her research was completed in 2003, Thompson said.

"It's just crazy to me that we don't know what things look like now," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "We're working with my numbers from 15 years ago."

She believes fears and taboos toward pornography have stymied research and public education efforts, to the detriment of young children being bombarded with increasingly explicit images of sex.

"I feel really weird as a researcher, pulling out 15-year-old stats," she said.

"That really bothers me that we don't even know how much and at what stage of development kids are being exposed … No one really knows how it's affecting socio-sexual development."

'You think it's curiosity, not a craving'

Thompson will be speaking about her work during a public screening of Over 18 in Edmonton Monday.

The Canadian documentary, which explores the effects of porn consumption in children, will screen in Edmonton for the first time at the South Pointe Community Centre at 7 p.m.

The film explores the impact of porn on relationships, body image, consent and safe sex. It features Joseph, a 13-year old boy who caught his first glimpse of porn when he was nine.

He was playing a  videogame on the internet when a pop-up ad lured him to an explicit website. He soon became addicted.

"For the few seconds that I saw it I couldn't get it out my head," Joseph says in the documentary directed by Jared and Michelle Brock.

"You almost feel a little craving, but at first you think it's curiosity, not a craving."  

Thompson said porn consumption has become the norm for young teens. Sexually explicit images are merely a mouse-click away and ignoring the ramifications of this exposure is a dangerous choice for parents and policy-makers, she said.

We need to talk about sex in a real way, said Thompson or risk leaving a generation sadly misinformed.

"I don't want to put a judgment on all sexually-explicit media … I don't want shame or judge but I do want to keep the well-being of kids at the fore."