Exposure to sexual media content: What are the impacts for young people? By Louise Tapper

  • 14 August 2019

Any society is made up of different communities. One of the most influential communities for young people is the online world of social media. This immersion in social media communities has led to concerns from educators and parents over the exposure to inappropriate violent and sexual content, and the possible harmful effects that such exposure might have on the development of children and young people. These concerns have been well documented in the literature.

I have done some work recently, along with other researchers from The Collaborative, looking at the impacts of the exposure to nudity and sexual content in various media forms on children and young people. Exposure to naked images, the perils of sexting, and the impacts of viewing pornography are explored in depth by many writers. Trawling through the empirical literature we found that there was plenty of evidence to show that there can be negative effects viewing sexual content on social media sites (such as Facebook or Instagram); for example, an increased likelihood for young people to engage in more risky sexual behaviours and to develop more permissive sexual attitudes. But I do wonder if there is a slight whiff of moral panic in some of the studies we reviewed, with the views of educators and parents often to the fore. Societal norms and attitudes change over time so I was particularly interested in the opinions of the young people who are experiencing this world of social media.

This article by Lewis et al (2018) gave some insight into the understandings of one group of young people from Australia, aged between 14-18 years, about their experiences of exposure to sexual content in social media. The young people in the focus groups for the study reported that for them, social media was how they engaged with their peers and connected to their world. The goal was often acceptance and popularity, which could explain the high levels of engagement. They stated that most of the sexual content that they were exposed to on social media was unintended and most felt irritated, uncomfortable and awkward when they were exposed to such content.

However, although they knew that they could report unintended sexual content to Facebook or Instagram, for example, few did. Most just ignored it. Few reported deleting a person from their social media site, or unfollowing someone if that person sent sexual content to them. The researchers were unable to conclusively analyse why this was the case for these young people. Some participants reported that they couldn’t be bothered or that blocking or ignoring seemed to work. Only a few described sharing sexual content themselves; most reported that they knew of other people doing this.

The authors concluded that exposure to sexual content for young people through social media is inevitable because of the high levels of engagement that young people will continue to have with varying forms of social media. Further, it is unlikely that exposure to sexual content will lead to lower engagement on social media sites for young people. They advocate that harm-minimisation communication and media literacy for young people, rather than a focus on trying to prohibit social media use, could be helpful. Allowing young people opportunities to share their experiences and discuss strategies to minimise harm with informed educators and with parents who understand the young person’s social media world, is recommended by the authors.

I like the way this New Zealand researcher sums up how we should be thinking about this issue and how we should try to understand it from the view of young people:

“We need to relinquish understandings of technology as a force good or bad, and understand it simply as a force. Questions of the real versus the online are of no use when trying to comprehend young people’s lived experiences. The online is the real” (O'Dwyer-Strang, 2017, p. 9).



Lewis, L., Somers, J. M., Guy, R., Watchirs-Smith, L., & Skinner, S. R. (2018). ‘I see it everywhere': young Australians unintended exposure to sexual content online. Sexual Health (Online), 15(4), 335-341.

(Full article available via Open Access here: http://www.publish.csiro.au/SH/SH17132)

O'Dwyer-Strang, N. (2017). What happens when the birds are sexting and the bees watch pornography? Digital sexualities, sexuality education and New Zealand adolescents. (Master of Arts), University of Otago, Dunedin.



Share this post