Tech: Sex Ed for All, Sex Problems for Some

Teens, Digital Devices, and Sexual ProblemsThe holidays are over and young people are diving headlong into use of their brand new digital devices. In addition to video games and social media, some kids, especially adolescents, are using their freshly acquired laptops, pads, smartphones, and the like as a gateway for sexual exploration, experimenting with pornography, sexting, video chat, “friend finder” apps, and more. Unfortunately, for some kids these online sexual behaviors can escalate over time in both frequency and intensity to the point where they begin to cause problems.

Once upon a time, of course, compulsivity and consequences related to sexual behaviors in adolescents were much less likely than today, mostly thanks to a lack of accessibility. For instance, in the pre-Internet era finding porn was somewhat difficult, and the pool of potential sex partners was limited to other kids (and maybe a few adults) in the immediate vicinity. So the odds of a typical teen struggling related to his/her sexual activity were minimal. The lack of access prevented potential problems.

Well, those days are gone. Today, any kid with a digital device has access to an unending array of online sexuality. And the vast majority of young people take advantage of this fact. Especially boys. In fact, in the digital era boys almost universally experiment with online sex, especially porn.i And most of the time they do this sooner rather than later. (Current estimates place the average age of first porn use at 11.ii) Girls also experiment with online sexuality, but, as with adult females, their behaviors tend to focus more on romantic fulfillment than purely sexual gratification. As such, girls tend to explore on social media and chat sites rather than porn sites.

Adolescent Sexual Behaviors: Normal or Problematic?

Because adolescents are naturally hyper-obsessed with sex, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between “normal” kids and kids with sexual problems. That said, a small percentage of young people do have serious sexual issues. In fact, there isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t get at least a few calls or emails from people seeking help for an adolescent who is sexually acting out in an abusive and/or compulsive way. And that last bit – abusive and/or compulsive – is the primary difference between healthy adolescent sexual exploration and a behavioral disorder.

To further understand this difference, consider a boy who masturbates to pornography several nights per week before going to bed who is maintaining his grades, his social life, and other important aspects of life. This boy probably does not have a sexual problem, even though his parents might be somewhat disturbed by his behavior. Now consider a boy who looks at and masturbates to pornography multiple hours nightly, whose grades have fallen off a cliff, who has lost interest in normal teenaged social activities, and whose self-esteem is in the toilet. In all likelihood, this boy does have an issue that needs to be addressed.

If/when young people experience problems with online sexual activity, it is typically because they’ve become compulsive with porn use, sexting, hookup apps, sexualized video chat, and/or sexualized use of social media. Often they will spend hours per day involved in these activities (and in hiding evidence of these behaviors from their caregivers). Common warning signs that an adolescent may be experiencing problems with digitally-driven sexual behaviors include:

  • Diminished interest in and/or ability to socialize with peers (i.e., social withdrawal)
  • Excessive interest (or a total lack of interest) in typical adolescent dating activities
  • Mood problems that are ongoing (not situational)
  • Decreased interest in and/or declining performance in school and extracurricular activities
  • Secretiveness around computer and smartphone usage – wiping browser histories, clearing texts and phone logs, password protecting devices, owning and using devices in secret, etc.
  • Lying to parents or others about the nature and/or the amount of online activity
  • Secrecy in general, such as spending large amounts of time alone in a room with the door locked
  • Sexual aggression, incest, age-inappropriate relationships, etc.
  • A demonstrated lack of empathy toward other individuals involved (either directly or indirectly) in the child’s sexual behavior

In general, young people who become compulsive with online sexuality suffer stunted emotional and psychological growth. (This is also true with adolescent substance abusers.) In short, if a 12-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience is suddenly exposed to and becomes compulsive with hardcore pornography, that’s what his or her view of adult relationships is likely to become, which will almost certainly create difficultly if/when he or she attempts to have a real world romantic relationship later in life. Other common short- and long-term consequences include:

  • Erectile dysfunction (generally linked to excessive porn use)
  • Physical harm to genitalia (caused by excessive masturbation)
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble in school
  • Relationship problems – with friends, girlfriends/boyfriends, parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, etc.
  • Drug and/or alcohol use/abuse/addiction in conjunction with sexual acting out
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Sexual addiction

Many of these consequences will dissipate if/when the child stops compulsively using his or her digital device in sexualized ways. For instance, porn related erectile dysfunction tends to stop after porn use stops. (Essentially, compulsive porn users become conditioned to the hyper-stimulation of porn, which makes it difficult to become aroused under normal sexual circumstances. However, their brains readjust and things go back to normal after a month, or maybe a few months, of porn abstinence.)

Among the most serious potential consequences is the last item on the list: sexual addiction. For the most part, the same kids who are at risk for substance addictions are at risk for sexual addiction, usually thanks to a witch’s brew of genetic predisposition and unresolved early-life trauma issues.iii That said, even kids who aren’t at risk can become sexually addicted, particularly if they begin their use of porn, sexting, and other sexual activities at an early age. (This is also true with alcohol and drug addiction, where numerous studies find a direct correlation between age of first use and an increased likelihood of later-life addiction.iv) So the fact that most kids are experimenting with porn by age 11 suddenly looks a bit more ominous.

Should We Blame Technology?

Young people are usually able to express their sexual selves online with no more consequences than they experience related to real-world sexual experimentation. This does not mean that teens don’t occasionally experience problems related to digitally driven sexual behaviors, because they do. For the most part, however, these issues arise thanks to typical adolescent impulsivity more than anything else. In short, technology doesn’t push these kids into bad behavior, it simply provides a new venue for it.

Nevertheless, many adults, parents and professionals alike, want to put the onus on digital devices. Essentially, they choose to pathologize digital age adolescent sexuality because it looks different than their own pre-Internet sexual exploration. Basically, adults, fearing the unfamiliar, decide that technology is the problem and they respond to that in kind – usually by trying to take away digital devices. This DOES NOT WORK. Kids are not going to stop using digital devices any more than adults stopped drinking during prohibition.

The simple truth is adults need to understand that new is not necessarily bad. It’s just different. In other words, even though a technology and related behaviors may look entirely foreign (and frightening) to adults, these things are perfectly natural and normal for kids. For instance, the idea of teen sexting scares the daylights out of most grown-ups, but research suggests that for adolescents it’s simply part of the new normal.v So adults can scream and yell and pathologize this behavior all they want, but kids are going to do it anyway. Because for them it’s part of the normal adolescent sexual process.

What Can You Do?

If you are worried about a child’s online sexual behavior, consider using an Internet filtering and monitoring software. (For more information, see this article.) In this way you can limit the child’s online access to sexual content and contacts, much as laws that govern the purchase and consumption of alcohol and tobacco limit your child’s access to those potentially problematic substances. Typically these software products offer varying levels of filtering and monitoring, allowing parents to set them at an age-appropriate level. Of course, even with the help of a top-tier protective software adults can’t completely shield children from the online world. After all, what a kid can’t access on his or her own digital devices can be accessed on a friend’s device, at the library, or on a digital device that he or she purchases and uses in secret.

As such, much as it is with drugs and alcohol, the best thing adults can do, if they’re worried about a child’s sexual behavior (online or real world), is to talk to that child in a nonjudgmental way, encouraging an open and honest discussion about all aspects of adolescent sexuality, including the use of online pornography, chat rooms, hookup apps, social media, sexting, and the like. It is incredibly important that adults work through any strong feelings they have about these issues before initiating this conversation, eliminating (or at least significantly reducing) any fear or anger based reactions that might drive away a potentially valuable growth and learning opportunity.

Having done that, adults should then try to learn the extent and purpose of the child’s online sexual activity. If the behavior seems extreme (multiple times daily, for hours at a time, etc.) or if it’s being engaged in as an escape/avoidance mechanism (the child seems isolated, the child is avoiding social/dating settings), then it might be wise to seek the help of an adolescent sexual addiction treatment specialist. The International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) offers referrals to certified sex addiction therapists.


[i] Liew, J. (2009). All men watch porn, scientists find. The Telegraph. Retrieved Jan 16, 2015 from telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/6709646/All-men-watch-porn-scientists-find.html.

[ii] Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Unwanted and wanted exposure to online pornography in a national sample of youth Internet users. Pediatrics, 119(2), 247-257.

[iii] Weiss, R. (2014). Addiction: Nature versus nurture. Psychology Today. Retrieved Jan 16, 2015 from blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2014/03/addiction-nature-versus-nurture/.

[iv] Odgers, C. L., Caspi, A., Nagin, D. S., Piquero, A. R., Slutske, W. S., Milne, B. J., … & Moffitt, T. E. (2008). Is it important to prevent early exposure to drugs and alcohol among adolescents? Psychological Science, 19(10), 1037-1044.

[v] Temple, J. R., & Choi, H. (2014). Longitudinal association between teen sexting and sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 134(5), e1287-e1292.