Internet porn is hazardous to teenagers, argues British doctor Max Pemberton. Their brains aren’t built to make the connection between impulse and consequences. Dr Starmer’s comments are timely, coming just after a 14-year old British boy … was found guilt of raping a 4-year old girl. The judge [at sentencing, stated] that the boy had been “sexualised by the corruption of pornography”.
Why we should stop teens looking at internet porn (Opinion piece republished from The Telegraph by The Dominion Post, Opinion, 11 July, 2012, p. A13.
Computers have radically altered the way that humans interact, and inevitably some view the changes with suspicion. That doesn’t make those people Luddites, because there are times when it seems right to question certain changes in society brought about by technology. Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said last week he was worried about new research that suggests that teenage relationships are becoming more abusive. He blamed this trend on the ready access to internet pornography.
Was he being an old fuddy-duddy? It’s an important question because it has serious ramifications for ideas surrounding censorship and choice on the internet. If correct, the research he referred to means that technology is having an adverse effect on the younger generation, altering aspects of their behaviour towards each other as sexual beings.
Starmer’s comments are timely, coming just after a 14?year-old boy was freed and given a three-year supervised community order after he was found guilty of raping a four-year-old girl. The judge justified the sentence by saying that the boy had been “sexualised by the corruption of pornography”.
Can this be correct? Can we really blame pornography? As uncomfortable as it makes me, I agree with the judge’s decision and Starmer’s concerns – and it’s all because of a bit of brain just behind our forehead called the prefrontal cortex. This blob of neurones is what makes us more than just animals. It’s involved in a dizzying range of functions that most adults take for granted. It is the seat for impulse control and delaying gratification; foreseeing and judging consequences of behaviour; predicting outcomes; forming strategies and planning; modulating emotions; inhibiting inappropriate behaviour and initiating appropriate behaviour. It’s involved in expressing our personality and orchestrates our thoughts and actions.
It is, in short, not just the part of the brain that makes us human and integrates us socially, but it also makes us, us. And when considering the impact of viewing graphic pornography on youngsters, this bit of the brain becomes very important.
Over the past few years, there have been various scare stories claiming that the internet alters the developing brains of children. This is largely piffle – no such clear, objective evidence exists. Playing Super-Mario isn’t going to turn a child’s brain to mush.
But that doesn’t mean all is well in cyberspace. The very danger of youngsters being exposed to sexually graphic films and images actually has nothing to do with the internet changing their brains, but with the fact that their brains are changing of their own accord anyway. If you’re under 25, you’re not going to like the next bit. But don’t blame me, blame your brain. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop fully and is still developing well into a person’s twenties. That is why teenagers behave the way they do.
With an immature prefrontal cortex, they can understand that a type of behaviour is dangerous or wrong, but they lack the neural circuitry to modulate these thoughts and process them the way an adult does. If parental instruction is missing and their only point of reference is gratuitous pornography, many youngsters will develop a warped, distorted understanding of sex – sometimes with tragic results.
While an adult can view such images and, usually, understand that they are a fantasy and not a blueprint for human relations, children and teenagers struggle with this. It’s actually not their fault; their brains simply aren’t fully formed. We’d never expect a newborn baby to tell us what it wanted for supper, and that is because those parts of its motor cortex and the speech areas of its brain haven’t developed yet. It’s the same with complex social and moral development in older children. Just because teenagers look and sound like adults, we should not assume they think like them.
There is therefore a genuine, scientific reason why we should ensure that graphic – both sexual and violent – content is carefully restricted. This isn’t about being puritanical, reactionary or patronising. It’s just accepting the science. The inevitable conclusion is that there should be an opt-in clause to view adult content on the internet. Though I loathe the idea of restrictions, in the case of pornography we do teenagers a disservice if we don’t place constraints on what they can view online.
I know this won’t make me popular with teenagers. But when their prefrontal cortex develops, they’ll understand.