Students addicted to erotic material: What can schools do?

Article by Kieran Seed /
School Governance /
August 04, 2016 /
Click here to view original /

Despite living in a time where just one adult content site can reportedly account for 2% of all internet traffic, research into the effects of freely available erotic material is still incredibly limited. As a result, the potential risks for the younger generation are largely undocumented and poorly understood.

Hugh Martin, psychotherapist and founder of Man Enough, is attempting to raise awareness of what adult content entails, its addictive qualities, and how to have discussions about its potential impacts on young people. Mr Martin was kind enough to speak to School Governance and share his thoughts on the issue.

The accessibility of adult content is of particular importance for schools, as issues regarding access and addiction to explicit material are often ineffectively dealt with or not dealt with at all. In particular, sex education in schools may be deficient for not communicating these risks to students.

This article examines the issue of access and addiction to internet erotic material, while also examining the ways sex education in schools may develop to reflect changes in sexual issues affecting students.

In the digital age, erotic material, once only of limited availability in videotapes or adult bookstores, has clearly become readily accessible and consumed by the general public. While recent statistics suggest only 4% of all internet sites are associated with erotic material, almost 13% of all web searches have been for websites of this nature.

Such proliferation increases the risk that young children will either accidentally come across or deliberately seek out adult content.

Lauren Rosewarne of the University of Melbourne commented that the average age for a child seeing adult content online for the first time is just 10 years old, with the wide diffusion of the internet causing many children to have their first exposure to sex in this medium. International estimates suggest nine in ten boys, and six in ten girls aged 13-16 have viewed online erotic material, while in older age brackets, up to 99% of young people are reported to have viewed some form of erotic media online.

As Hugh Martin suggests, by growing up in an environment without “any sort of boundaries” on access, this broad exposure can become very overwhelming; particularly for young children.

A recent report suggests that with ease of access at such an early age, children are exposed to sexually-explicit media before they have developed sufficiently to understand and constructively engage with this information.

The Australian Psychological Society has suggested that viewing highly explicit material, at such a critical time in mental development, may warp a child’s views about consent and acceptable behaviour. This is amplified by research revealing that most children do not see a clear division between the online environment and the real world.

While there is currently no real consensus on the impact of viewing adult content regularly, many researchers believe that numerous users exhibit symptoms characteristic of addiction, with clear similarities to behavioural addictions such as gambling. A Kinsey Institute survey found that 9% of individuals who view X-rated material have tried unsuccessfully to stop and numerous regular users who have attempted to wean themselves off this same type of material have exhibited irritability, anger and depression. These are all hallmarks of withdrawal symptoms according to Hugh Martin.

Mr Martin has suggested the term ‘addiction’ is itself a barrier to proper understanding of this issue, as waiting for scientific recognition could enable broader entrenchment of the impacts of adult content.

Bringing the Impacts to Schools

An addiction to viewing erotic material online was described by a teacher from a prominent Sydney high school as being equivalent to “smoking, alcohol and drugs” in its spread and impact amongst students. In one instance, a 14 year-old boy had become so obsessed with watching adult content that he would “stay up all night” and avoid all other social contact.

According to Mr Martin, a cognitive impact of excessive use of adult content is an overbearing of concentration, which has clear detriments for the school setting. An addiction of this nature may reduce students’ completion of school work or participation in extra-curricular activities, as well as affecting the social interactions with parents and other children, particularly members of the opposite sex. Inside the classroom, children as young as 12 are reportedly unable to complete a full school day without viewing explicit images or videos.

The Sydney high school mentioned is responding to the situation by mentoring students on the use and risks of accessing explicit material online. They are also urging parents to remove access to smartphones until children mature and move into high school.

Government Responses

In an Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) Survey, 82% of respondents indicated that they would find it useful if legislation required the use of internet filters in schools, to protect children from exposure to adult material online. Over 95% also thought there should be template policies and procedures developed by the government to assist schools in controlling student access.

This strongly indicates that schools should remain aware of the efficacy of their internal policies in respect of issues of student access to explicit content.

A Senate Inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to explicit material on the Internet was commenced in December 2015. Inquiry research suggested that over 90% of 16-year-old boys were regular users of erotica, with children as young as six exposed due to the proliferation of online devices. However, the Inquiry’s formal findings may not be known as the Inquiry lapsed when Parliament was dissolved for the federal election and the new Senate is yet to decide whether this Inquiry should recommence.

One Solution: Sex Education

With the future of the Senate Inquiry in doubt, schools have been left uncertain about how to deal with the problems posed by students accessing adult content online. One potential solution may be sex education. As stated by the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare in a submission to the recent Senate Inquiry, allowing for the proper and safe development of children requires them to develop well-being and understanding in relation to sexual health.

In 2012, a national survey of adolescents showed that sex education in Australian schools was believed insufficient to deal with issues surrounding sexual activity and relationships and the risks of sexual infection. Maia Giordana of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC) stated that “In some schools it’s being taught really comprehensively, and in other schools it’s not really happening at all”.

Almost as many young people got their information about sex from adult content rather than school, with 64% and 69% receiving their information this way respectively. Mr Martin suggests that the current method of teaching cannot “compete” with the broad access young people have to explicit media.

A National ‘Sex Ed’ Curriculum?

In response to the survey, Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS and AYAC both promoted sex education being included in the national curriculum and 80% of young people also supported national standardisation of this area. Such a curriculum would also include lessons on ‘sexting’, an issue which we have previously discussed here and here.

However, recent discussion also suggests that a national framework would not completely solve the issue, with criticism of the current risk-based approach to education.

As Hugh Martin suggests, focusing on the nature and prevention of sexually transmitted infections does little for teaching children about the complex nature of both social and sexual relationships. This is an issue only compounded by access to adult material, as it is reported that access and addiction affect how adolescent boys treat women socially and sexually, most alarmingly with uncertainty about communicating consent.

Maree Crabbe, who has worked extensively with young people in secondary schools, has stated that without discussing “desire, pleasure, consent, communication” with young people, their understanding of sex and sexuality will be impacted upon and driven predominately by a pervasive and confronting online environment.

Sex education in schools, combined with communication by parents and carers, has a clear role to play in instructing children on the safe use of and navigation of the internet, including the dangers of accessing adult content.

In Conclusion

Despite the potential knowledge gap amongst schools and the general population, Hugh Martin believes this year to be a “turning point” in achieving broad understanding of the diffusion and impacts of online adult content. In recognising the risks posed by viewing erotic material online, including its accessibility and addictive qualities, schools will be able to engage with the issue through effective and comprehensive sex education and mentoring of students.

Schools interested in learning more from Hugh Martin about engaging children, particularly boys, in educational activities or mentoring regarding their habits or addiction to adult content should complete and submit an online enquiry form here.