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Blog Safer Internet Day 2024 CO:RE at HBI Published: 06 Feb 2024 Last updated: 06 Feb 2024

Let’s talk about porn… and what we know from research - Five questions for Prof Nicola Döring

What do we know about young people's porn use? To what extent do young people search for sexual or pornographic content on their initiative? To what extent do they unintentionally come into contact with such content as part of their online use? What influence does pornographic content have, e.g. on their identity development and their ideas of sexuality and partnership?

On the topic of this year's Safer Internet Day, we asked a recognised expert for her perspective. Nicola Döring is a psychologist and professor for “Media Psychology and Media Design” at Ilmenau University of Technology (Department of Economic Sciences and Media; Institute of Media and Communication Science) and has been studying the role of sexual content in the repertoire of children and young people for many years.

1. Prof Döring, for many years, you have been involved in interdisciplinary research on the sexual content of digital media, its production, use and effects. You have also worked with sex educators. Is there a consensus among researchers and practitioners about the sexual health and well-being of young people today? Are they worse off than previous generations?

With regard to today’s youth, sometimes boldly referred to as “Generation Porn,” older generations often harbour the assumption that their own sexual upbringing in pre-Internet times was ultimately better and healthier without such easy access to pornography. This, however, is a myth.

Sexual Script Theory posits that people organise their actual sexual interactions according to learned “scripts” of what one is expected to do during sex. Earlier generations received little sex education, lived in a largely sex-free media world, and certainly did not have access to pornography. As a result, they received little outside input to develop their sexual scripts. They were “underscripted”, as German psychologist and sex researcher Gunter Schmidt put it (Schmidt & Matthiesen, 2012). Today’s young people, on the other hand, are “overscripted,” living in a sexualised media world that constantly revolves around who is having, has had, or will have what kind of sex with whom.

Growing up with either insufficient or excessive sexual information poses specific challenges. For example, in pre-Internet times, sex used to be more about fearful silence, disorientation, feelings of sin, shame and guilt, whereas today, it is more about self-presentation, social comparison, ambition, competition and pressure to perform.

Overall, there is a broad consensus that the social and sexual lives of young people today are significantly shaped by digital media and ubiquitous sexual media content (Temple-Smith et al., 2016). However, many experts also agree that each generation has its own opportunities and challenges when it comes to coming of age sexually. Thus, rather than romanticising the pre-Internet era, we should seek to better understand the precise challenges (e.g. increased sexual performance pressure) and opportunities (e.g. enhanced sexual knowledge) of growing up in today’s sex-saturated media environment (Courtice et al., 2021; Döring, 2021, 2022).

2. The digital age is, among other things, an age of ubiquitous digital pornography. How is research keeping up with this development? How do studies cover the use of sexually explicit media content among adolescents in Germany and elsewhere?

The boom in pornography use has been accompanied by a boom in pornography research. Literally thousands of studies have been published in recent years, providing content analyses of sexual media, as well as interview and survey data from various user groups (see academic database PubMed: for the last decade alone more than 2,400 published peer-reviewed pornography studies are documented). Often, studies show associations between pornography use and negative experiences (e.g., dissatisfaction with one’s own body, one’s partner’s body or one’s sex life in general). Increasingly, however, researchers are also examining and confirming positive experiences with pornography, such as satisfaction, entertainment, self-validation, broadening of horizons and more open intimate communication with partners. Today, there is a growing body of research that indicates more positive than negative experiences associated with pornography use in several demographics (e.g., Kohut et al., 2017).

However, there are two main research gaps:

1) Most studies have purely correlational designs and do not provide information about cause-and-effect relationships. Experimental designs that expose people to different types of pornography and measure immediate or long-term effects are not regularly conducted because of their many ethical and practical problems. Therefore, the majority of causal claims about the effects of pornography are speculative (McKee et al., 2022).

2) Most studies use adult samples. Youths are sometimes included (Peter & Valkenburg, 2016), but rarely children. For ethical reasons, one cannot expose minors to pornography in an experiment, and many researchers also shy away from asking minors about their pornography experiences in a questionnaire or during an oral interview. We know, from retrospective surveys of adults, that they often began using pornography at the age of 13 or 14. However, we do not have much systematic data from adolescents 13 or 14 years of age that would show what kind of content they use, how often, where and when, and how they interpret the explicit content. Therefore, most claims about adolescent pornography exposure and intended use are speculative.

In summary, there is no shortage of research on pornography in general, and the field is rich and evolving. But we lack well-designed experimental studies, and we lack current and systematic data on children's and adolescents' experiences with sexually explicit content. Research has documented unwanted exposure to pornography among minors (e.g., through peer interactions or online searches). However, research has proved even more widespread intentional use of pornography among minors, such as relatively large groups of male adolescents who masturbate to self-selected video pornography on a daily basis. Sex educators regularly hear their concerns and questions, but academic research does not adequately address them.

3. Teenage sexting, the practice of exchanging nude or semi-nude images of oneself among peers, has become a major concern in public discourse. Some parents, educators, child advocacy organisations, and policymakers are calling for anti-sexting campaigns to discourage minors from engaging in what they perceive as risky behaviour that mimics pornography. What do you think?

Most researchers recognise consensual sexting as a common expression of sexual intimacy in the digital age. Sexting is much more prevalent among adults than teens. As adolescents come of age sexually, they engage in a variety of sexual activities both offline and online. According to the children’s rights framework, minors have the right to participate in consensual sexual activities with their peers and the right to sexuality education. At the same time, they have the right to protection from violence. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between consensual sexting, which they should be free to explore, and non-consensual sexting in terms of image-based violence, from which they need protection. The idea that young people's consensual sexting needs to be restricted with “anti-sexting” campaigns to prevent violence is as illogical as “anti-sex” campaigns to prevent rape (Döring, 2014). Research shows that, unfortunately, parents and teachers often condemn teen sexting and blame the victims of image-based violence, and thus do not intervene effectively and are not trusted by victims of violence.

4. What is the role of parents when it comes to adolescent pornography use and sexting?

Most parents in Germany explicitly want comprehensive sexuality education for their children. They understand that sexual knowledge is important to promote sexual health and well-being and to combat risks. More parents than ever before are talking to their children about sex (Döring et al., 2023). In particular, mothers are talking with their daughters about topics such as menstruation and contraception.

At the same time, parents often express anxiety about talking with their teens about sensitive topics such as pornography use, masturbation, sexual fantasies, or sexting. They hope that professional sex educators can do the job. Experts agree that both parents and teachers often need training on how to address these issues with their teens in a helpful way. Otherwise, they run the risk of sending harmful messages to vulnerable teens. If adolescents feel judged or blamed for their sexual experiences and problems, they will learn to keep quiet. This is the most dangerous lesson of all.

5. Where do you see the greatest need for action when it comes to pornography, young people and their safety and sexual well-being?

Focusing this year’s Safer Internet Day on pornography is a step in the right direction. Digital pornography is here to stay. Teens are curious and will always find a way to access sexually explicit digital content. The opportunities and challenges of sexual media content are manageable. But an open debate is needed. Teens can only open up about their sexual questions, insecurities, bad experiences and fears if they can trust that adults will not blame or punish them for their natural curiosity and exploration. Professional sex educators need more time and resources to work with youth on pornography literacy. Parents and teachers need support in talking to their teens about these issues in a non-judgmental, informed, and helpful way. Digital platforms need to take more effective action to intervene and prevent the spread of hate speech, digital sexual harassment and virtual violence, such as non-consensual sharing of self-produced intimate images or deep fake porn. Perpetrators of virtual sexual violence must also be held criminally accountable in a more consistent manner. Finally, researchers need to feel recognised and not stigmatised when they engage in research on sexual behaviour in digital contexts, including pornography. We have a long way to go, but we are getting there.


Courtice, E.L., Shaughnessy, K., Blom, K., Asrat, Y., Daneback, K., Döring, N., Grov, C., & Byers, E.S. (2021). Young Adults’ Qualitative Self-Reports of Their Outcomes of Online Sexual Activities. European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education, 11(2), 303-320.

Döring, N. (2014). Consensual sexting among adolescents: Risk prevention through abstinence education or safer sexting? Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 8 (1).

Döring, N. (2021). Sex Education on Social Media. In A. Lykins (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Sexuality and Gender. Cham, Switzerland.

Döring, N. (2022). Sex, Jugend und Pornografie: Wie soll man pädagogisch damit umgehen? [Sex, youth and pornography: How to deal with it educationally?]. Kinder- und Jugendschutz in Wissenschaft und Praxis, 67(3), 94-99.

Döring, N., Walter, R., & Scharmanski, S. (2023). Elterliche Sexualaufklärung und sexuelles Risikoverhalten bei Töchtern und Söhnen: Befunde aus der Repräsentativbefragung „Jugendsexualität“ [Parental Sex Education and Sexual Risk Behavior of Daughters and Sons: Findings from the Representative Survey “Youth Sexuality”]. Bundesgesundheitsblatt – Gesundheitsforschung – Gesundheitsschutz, eFirst.

Kohut, T., Fisher, W.A. & Campbell, L. (2017). Perceived Effects of Pornography on the Couple Relationship: Initial Findings of Open-Ended, Participant-Informed, “Bottom-Up” Research. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 585–602.

McKee, A., Litsou, K., Byron, P. & Ingham, R. (2022). What do we know about the effects of pornography after fifty years of academic research? New York: Routledge.

Peter, J. & Valkenburg, P.M. (2016). Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research. The Journal of Sex Research, 53:4-5, 509-531.

Schmidt, G. & Matthiesen, S. (2012). Pornografiekonsum von Jugendlichen – Fakten und Fiktionen [Pornography consumption among youth – facts and fiction]. In M. Schuegraf & A. Tillmann (Eds.), Pornografisierung von Gesellschaft. Perspektiven aus Theorie, Empirie und Praxis (S. 245-258). Konstanz/München UVK / Herbert von Halem.

Temple-Smith, M., Moore, S. & Rosenthal, D. (2016). Sexuality in Adolescence: The Digital Generation. New York: Taylor and Francis.

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Professor for “Media Psychology and Media Design” at Ilmenau University of Technology

Prof Nicola Döring

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