Soon after its commercialization in 1993, the Internet and the World Wide Web gained prominence in producing, disseminating, storing, and presenting pornographic materials known as cyberporn or cybersex. Content analyses (Heider & Harp, 2000; Mehta & Plaza, 1997; Rimm, 1985) have shown that pornographic materials posted and distributed on the Internet have been presented in an unprecedented and interactive dimension. Concerns over the excessive growth of Internet pornography have given rise to a moral panic (McMurdo, 1997). Evidence in the literature has established an association of exposure to pornographic materials with sexual arousal and cognitive effects, especially changes in attitudes (such as disinhibition) and values (such as sexual callousness). The conclusions of the impact on behavioral effect, however, are inconsistent. A large number of studies reported effects of use of pornography on aggression, but other studies (e.g., Donnerstein, Linz, & Penrod, 1987; Linz, Donnerstein, & Adams, 1989) have suggested that aggression accompanied materials containing sexual violence. Several meta-analytic analyses provided the most compelling evidence (Allen, D'Alessio, & Brezgel, 1995; Allen, Emmers, Gebhardt, & Giery, 1995) to support the proposition that consumption of either nonviolent or violent pornography may lead to some serious attitudinal and behavioral effects. Not surprisingly, policymakers, parents, and educators fear cyberporn will cause greater social harm than traditional pornography.
Much of the moral panic over Internet pornography has been attributed to the capability of this newly emerged mass medium to provide widespread and unguarded access via bulletin board services, e-mail (especially listserv), Internet relay chat, and real-time data feeds. The presentation of pornographic materials in multimedia format, including digitized moving images, animated sequences, hot chats, and interactive sexual games, is another unique feature of cyberporn that differs from traditional hard-core pornographic materials.
The growing research on effects of Internet pornography has primarily focused on adult users (Barak & Fisher, 1997; Barak, Fisher, Belfry, & Lashambe, 1999; Lo & Wei, 2002; Wu & Koo, 2001). The influence of Internet pornography on the Web-savvy adolescents, however, has constituted a gap in the current research. The need for research in this area is particularly strong (Donnerstein & Smith, 2001). This study responds to the need by investigating how adolescents use Internet pornography and what the correlates (e.g., demographics, general media use, sexual attitudes, and behavior) of exposure to Internet porn are.
In the United States, the media were ranked second only to school sex education programs as a source of information about sex (Greenberg, Brown, & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1993). A Time/CNN poll (Stodghill, 1998) singled out TV as the principal source of information about sex: 29% of surveyed US teens mentioned it. Adolescents are skilled Internet navigators. Another Time/CNN poll of teenagers found 82% had used the Internet; among them, 44% had seen X-rated content (Okrent, 1999). A more recent survey of 2,628 Taiwanese high school and college students found that 88% had navigated the Internet and 44% had surfed pornographic Web sites (Lo & Wei, 2002). The Internet thus offers an often-unguarded access to an abundance of saliently presented sexual materials and enables adolescents to view materials that previously were kept off limits. As Donnerstein and Smith (2001) argued, Internet pornography may act as an even more influential socializing agent of sexuality to teen Internet users than traditional media.
This study focuses on exposure to Internet pornography and the relationships between the exposure and sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. In so doing, it aims to expand the scope of literature on sex and the media, thus contributing to the theorization of effects of cyberporn use in the era of Internet communication.
Literature Review and Hypotheses.
Effects of Internet Pornography on Sexual Attitudes and Behavior
Despite the widespread public concern about the possible effects of Internet pornography on adolescents' sexual attitudes and behavior, there is a paucity of empirical data. A review of the literature found only a limited number of studies examining the influence of Internet pornography on adults (Barak & Fisher, 1997; Barak et al., 1999; Kalyanaraman, Sundar, & Oliver, 2000). Empirical research on cyberporn's impact on adolescents is even scantier. The literature on effects of media sex and pornographic materials on adolescents basically comprises a large number of studies of sexual material and pornography carried in traditional media, particularly television (Brown, Steele, & Walsh-Childers, 2001; Greenberg & Hofschire, 2001; Malamuth & Impett, 2001; S. L. Smith & Donnerstein, 1998). This research tradition has largely focused on testing the effects of pornography on poorly informed children's psychological dispositions in terms of sexually permissive attitudes and behavior. Our review of past empirical findings, therefore, relies on those about traditional media.
Past findings consistently show that exposure to sexually explicit content is a strong influence of young people's sexually permissive attitudes. Specifically, Strouse and Buerkel-Rothfuss (1987) found that consumption of sexually suggestive media was a significant predictor of sexually permissive attitudes and behavior for college students. In addition, those who had a higher level of exposure to sexually suggestive media tended to have sexual relations with more than one person. A study by Greeson and Williams (1986) also found that viewing sexually suggestive content on MTV was linked to acceptance of premarital sex among junior and senior high school students. Similarly, Bryant and Rockwell (1986) found that adolescents exposed to television shows with premarital sexual relations evaluated these relations as less bad than did those exposed to shows with marital sexual relations. The finding was confirmed in more studies on viewing R-rated films (Brown & Newcomer, 1991).
Other studies employing either a survey or experimental methodology were conducted to explore the effects of exposure to pornography on people's attitudes toward women, sexual aggression, and sexual crimes (Allen, Emmers, et al., 1995; Bauserman, 1996; Donnerstein et al., 1987; Zillmann & Bryant, 1989). Although correlational research does not consistently support a link between pornography exposure and attitudes toward women and sexual aggression (Allen, Emmers, et al., 1995; Bauserman, 1996; Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2000), a survey of 1,585 Taiwanese high school students found that exposure to pornographic media was a significant predictor of sexually permissive attitudes (Lo, Neilan, Sun, & Chiang, 1999). Moreover, experimental research indicates that exposure to pornography may lead to insensitivity toward victims of sexual violence (Zillmann & Weaver, 1989) and contribute to men's aggressive behavior against women (Donnerstein et al., 1987; Malamuth et al., 2000; Zillmann, 1998; Zillmann & Bryant, 1989). With a focus on assessing the influence of exposure to pornography on people's sexually permissive attitudes and behavior, Zillmann and Bryant's (1988) experimental study found that college students who watched 6 hours of X-rated films over 6 weeks tended to show greater acceptance of premarital sex and tended to see sex without love as being more important than did a control group that saw non-sexually explicit films. Based on these consistent findings, we predict the following:
H1: Adolescents who have had a higher level of exposure to Internet pornography will exhibit a higher level of premarital permissive attitudes.
Previous research also examined the impact of exposure to sexual content on people's attitudes toward extramarital sex. Extramarital sex refers to sexual activity between a married person and someone other than his or her current spouse (Goettsch, 1994). In most of the Western as well as Chinese societies, extramarital sex is viewed as sinful, criminal, or immoral (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1988). Not surprisingly, most people disapprove of extramarital sex. For example, in a survey conducted in the United States, more than 90% of the general public felt that extramarital sex was "always" or "almost always" wrong (T. W. Smith, 1994).
Past findings reveal that extramarital sex is linked to demographic factors, personal values, opportunities for extramarital sex, marital satisfaction, and premarital sexual permissiveness (Maykovich, 1976; Reiss, Anderson, & Sponaugle, 1980; T. W. Smith, 1994). One study (Zillmann & Bryant, 1988) specifically examined the effects of exposure to traditional pornography on attitudes toward extramarital sex. Prolonged exposure to X-rated films was found to be associated with greater acceptance of extramarital sex and greater tolerance for violations of sexual exclusivity. Accordingly, we further propose that there will be a relationship between exposure to Internet pornography and attitudes toward extramarital sex. Therefore, it was hypothesized that
H2: Adolescents who have had a higher level of exposure to Internet pornography will be more likely to condone extramarital sex.
The influence of exposure to sexually explicit materials on teens' sexual behaviors focused on their sexual permissiveness. Evidence was solid. In a survey study of 1,000 adolescents' self-reported beliefs about their own sexuality, Howard (1985) found television and pop music were the two biggest sources of media pressure to engage in sexual activity. Courtright and Baran (1980) also found that heavy television viewers tended to hold more negative attitudes toward maintaining virginity. Another study by Brown and Newcomer (1991), which examined the linkage between television viewing and adolescents' sexual experience, found that teenagers' viewing of sex-oriented television programs was positively correlated with their sexual activities. Peterson, Moore, and Furstenberg (1991) found that viewing television was positively correlated with sexual activity of teenage girls. Furthermore, research conducted in Taiwan found that exposure to pornography on electronic media was the most powerful predictor of adolescents' sexually permissive behavior (Lo et al., 1999). The aforementioned empirical findings provide the rationale for the third hypothesis:
H3: Those adolescents who have had a higher level of exposure to Internet pornography will exhibit a higher level of sexually permissive behavior.
Although sexually explicit materials and pornographic content on the Internet may not differ from those appearing in traditional media, the state-of-the art presentation and dissemination capabilities of the new medium make it unique and novel. In fact, the distinctive features of the Internet, such as easy access, anonymity, and affordability for users across age groups and geographic boundaries, and the opportunities for users to customize materials for downloading and storage, make it an ideal medium for production, distribution, and manipulation of pornographic materials (Kalyanaraman et al., 2000). In addition, Internet pornographic materials in digital interactive formats allow for real-time, ongoing interactions with the target audience, another major difference from traditional channels in presenting stimulants for sexual arousal. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the Internet has become an important channel for sexual communication.
Theoretically, the unique aspects of Internet pornography could intensify the socially undesirable effects of pornographic materials and make adolescents more susceptible to the influence of Internet pornography. As Barak et al. (1999) noted, the interactive nature of the Internet may create a "sense of place" and "potentiate any negative effects of pornography" (p. 68). Empirically, however, results were mixed. In an experimental study, Barak and Fisher (1997) examined the relationship between the use of interactive erotica and antifemale attitudes and behavior. They found that the interactive erotic stimuli resulted in significant amounts of sexual arousal, but use of computer-mediated pornography was not correlated with negative attitudes toward women and related behavior. The Barak et al. (1999) experimental study on short-term effects of exposure to Internet pornography found that exposure to Internet pornography had no effect on men's negative attitudes toward women, rape myth acceptance, or likelihood of sexual harassment. In another experimental study, however, Mahood, Kalyanaraman, and Sundar (2000) found that exposure to high and medium interactivity, as compared with low interactivity, (1) increased the dehumanizing effect of Internet pornography and led to more acceptance of violence toward women. An experimental study by Kalyanaraman et al. (2000) found that accidental exposure to pornographic Web sites resulted in more negative impressions of Internet pornography and negative perceptions of the world and people. In a more recent study, Fisher and Barak (2001) attempted to provide a conceptual and empirical context for considering antecedents and consequences of experience with Internet sexuality. Based on the Sexual Behavior Sequence, they proposed that experience with Internet sexuality would reinforce people's preexisting arousal, affective, and cognitive responses to sexuality.
At any rate, it is reasonable to expect that exposure to the highly interactive and sophisticated forms of Internet pornography may exert a greater influence on adolescents' permissive attitudes and behavior. However, given the lack of consistent empirical findings, only one research question was raised:
RQ: Will exposure to Internet pornography be a stronger correlate of adolescents' sexually permissive attitudes and behavior than will exposure to traditional forms of pornography?
Gender Differences in Internet Pornography Exposure
The existing research suggests that a few variables function as intervening variables in moderating the effects of exposure to various types of media sex and pornographic content (Donnerstein & Smith, 2001). Gender is one such variable. Past research on traditional forms of pornography indicates that adolescents have a surprisingly high level of exposure to a variety of pornography (Strasburger, 1995), with adolescent boys seeing much more pornographic material than do girls (e.g., Bryant & Brown, 1989). A study (Elias, 1971) of high school students in the United States reported that 89% of the boys and 40% of the girls said they had read Playboy. A more recent study (Greenberg & Linsangan, 1993) of 1,200 high school students in Michigan found that of 30 popular, sexually oriented R-rated movies, high school boys reportedly had viewed an average of 15.3 films, and high school girls had viewed an average of 14.5 films.
Research conducted in Taiwan also shows that males saw much more pornographic material than did females. For example, a study of 50,150 high school and college students by the Taiwan Provincial Family Planning Research Institute found 93.5% of the males and 66.9% of the females in the sample had been exposed to pornographic books or magazines (Lin & Lin, 1996). A more recent study (Lo et al., 1999) found that high school boys reported seeing many more pornographic films, magazines, books, and comics than did girls. The same study also found that 38.1% of the high school boys and 7.1% of the girls reported having viewed pornography on a computer or CD-ROM. Based on these research findings on exposure to pornography in traditional media, the fourth research hypothesis was posed:
H4: Male adolescents will have a higher level of exposure to Internet pornography than will female adolescents.