A survey of thousands of young Canadian students across the country found a “concerning pattern” of teenaged boys seeking out pornography regularly, according to the non-profit organization MediaSmarts, while accounts of “sexting” were also commonplace.
The Ottawa-based digital literacy outfit, which was launched as a CRTC initiative in the 1990s, worked with schools and parents in each province and territory to conduct a wide-ranging survey with 5,436 students in Grades 4 through 11 about their lives online. Questions about sexuality were limited to the older students in Grades 7 through 11.
Forty percent of the boys admitted to looking for porn online, and the ones that did typically said they were frequently searching for it, says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts.
“There’s a significant number of students, and boys obviously in particular, for whom it is a really frequent behaviour,” says Johnson, noting a third of the boys who admitted to viewing porn said they did so daily, another third said they did so at least once a week, and almost one in five said it was at least once a month.
‘Heavy exposure to pornography can be problematic’
He says it’s a concerning pattern to see the boys that are seeking out pornography are doing so at very high rates.
“They’re still developing their sexuality, they’re developing their ideas of what is normal in sex, they’re developing a sexual identity and they’re developing an idea of what is appropriate in relationships. So obviously heavy exposure to pornography can be problematic in all of these areas.”
About one in 10 of the seventh grade boys — who are typically between the ages of 11 and 13 — reported they looked for porn online, while nearly one in three eighth graders, almost half of the ninth graders, and close to two-thirds of the 10th and 11th graders said the same.
Only seven percent of the girls polled said they had sought out pornography online.
Johnson says it’s possible that some of the students may have been too embarrassed to answer the questions truthfully, but he has faith in the numbers.
“As much as possible the surveys were conducted online in classrooms so that students would feel less self-conscious, and of course participants were reassured repeatedly of their anonymity,” he says.
“[Accuracy] is always an issue with survey data but that’s true in many ways of any kind of survey data, because we have a natural tendency to approach any survey question consciously or unconsciously with an idea of what the desired answer is.”
One in four older students said they had received a sext
On the subject of sexting — defined in the study as the sending or receiving of sexy, nude or partially nude photos — the researchers limited the questions to kids who had their own cellphone or regular access to one.
Almost one in 10 of those students said they had sent a sext of themselves, while about one in four said they had received a sext. Boys were twice as likely to be sent a sext than girls.
The numbers were higher among the oldest Grade 11 students in the study, with almost one in five saying they had sent a sext and one in three saying they had been sent one.
The fact that the numbers don’t match suggests sexts were often being sent to more than one person or forwarded to others after the fact, says Johnson.
Of all the survey respondents who said they had sent a sext, about 25% of them said they knew of their message being passed on to others.
“Of course it’s important to look at those students who are forwarding sexts because that is where the majority of the negative consequences happen, when it passes beyond the initial recipient,” says Johnson.
“We really do have to focus on confronting what may be a culture of sharing sexts among a subgroup of boys and really help them to approach the question with an ethical and empathic frame of mind.”
Even if the images are simply suggestive, Johnson says the bullying that can follow the forwarding of sexts can be devastating.
If there’s any good news, it’s that sexting is an ‘extremely rare’ practice among the younger students
“Research that’s been done elsewhere shows that when there are negative consequences to a sext coming out it is because essentially of a social or moral disapproval and that’s why we know that a photo doesn’t necessarily have to involve nudity for the subject to receive that kind of social disapproval,” Johnson says.
“Even when a subject is fully clothed, if it’s seen as being overly sexualized, and this is particularly true of girls, there is frequently some moral sanction from their peers.”
If there’s any good news in the sexting numbers, it’s that it’s an “extremely rare” practice among the younger students, says Johnson.
Just two per cent of the Grade 7 students and four per cent of the Grade 8 kids said they had sent a sext. About 11% of seventh graders and 17% of eighth graders said they had received a sext from its creator.
“I think [those numbers] will be a surprise to some people because when I presented our material in schools I’ve spoken to teachers and administrators who were really concerned about it at that level,” says Johnson.
“So I think it’s somewhat reassuring that as a behaviour, it doesn’t start to become common really until the beginning of high school.”