On 27 and 28 March, Dubrovnik was a meeting point of the high level representatives of the Council of Europe member countries and leading experts in child protection. Within the high level Conference "Growing with Children's Rights", the Council of Europe gathered more than 180 government representatives, international and human rights organisations, non-government organisations, international experts, members of professional associations, parliamentary representatives, members of local and regional authorities, ombudsmen and the youth.
Numerous Croatian media outlets have shared HINA’s report on the longitudinal research that was conducted during 2015 in Croatia by sociologists Taylor Kohut from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and Aleksandar Štulhofer from the University of Zagreb which didn’t confirm that the use of pornography causes harm to young men. Psychologist Mia Roje commented on the report in the name of Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb. As quoted from Index.hr:
“Experts have dismissed statements about the damaging effects of pornography on young people, and claim that viewing such content is not by itself harmful, but warn that explicit materials can be a sign of child abuse that will leave permanent traumatic consequences…
Beside the key finding that pornography by itself isn’t harmful, in one of the two groups of students the use of pornography was associated with both higher levels of self-esteem and more symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, in one group, a low sense of subjective well-being was associated with increased use of pornography for female students.
These results show the need for further research that could clarify the possible effect of viewing pornography for female adolescents “.
We should avoid oversimplifications
Psychologists professionally working with sexuality problems also think that watching pornography as such shouldn’t have harmful consequences on health and well-being of young people.
The psychologist of the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb Mia Roje says that she would agree with contemporary scientific knowledge that pornographic content alone is not the cause of mental or physical illness. However, she warns that oversimplification, where one doesn’t take all the relevant factors into account, “can lead to misconceptions and wrong or, at the very least, too narrow conclusions”.
One should ask why does a young person watch pornographic content, what does it bring to their life, how often do they do it, how much time in the day does it take them, and whether they have interest and capacity for realistic sexual activities and deeper emotional relationships, she emphasizes, adding: ” We should determine exactly what kind of content a young person is watching and what emotions does that provoke, is it pleasure, or is it shame and guilt. Also, it should be determined whether pornography is the only way by which this young person explores their sexuality, whether the pornography is hindering them in other activities and aspects of life and similar issues”.
A psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the Vrapče Psychiatric Clinic Goran Arbanas notes that, while he doesn’t work with children, he hasn’t seen a case where pornography would have a negative impact on people. Except, he explains, if a person is exposed to this kind of content for an exceptionally long time or in an extremely intense way. In such cases pornography can hamper normal human functioning, he says.
“It happens very rarely, when people are using pornography intensively, normal sexual activity or stimulation stops being sufficient to achieve satisfaction. I’m talking about adults who are freely involved in sexual relations “, noted the president of the Croatian Society for Sexual Therapy Goran Arbanas.
“Would it be any different if she had seen her father masturbating without pornography?”
However, student chaplain Damir Stojić has recently shaken the public with claims that might be contradictory to those put forward by experts and scientific research. He held a lecture on pornography, where he presented a case of a girl who allegedly lost her period because of pornography.
“I know a woman who caught her father watching pornography when she was a girl. She immediately lost her period from shock and never got it back. Your sin affects others even when they aren’t aware of it, and when they do find out it’s horrible. (…) People watch pornography not because they want to humiliate the other person but because they are weak and pathetic”, repeated Stojić in an interview.
Some media reported that Stojić said that the girl found her father looking at pornography and became mute, while others reported that she lost her period.
Experts are commenting that it is necessary to separate scientific interpretation of the consequences of watching pornography from moral attitudes and emotions.
“Talking about social issues, especially those that are controversial, entails questions of personal values, attitudes and ideology, and they are accompanied by emotions”, says psychologist Roje, and adds:
“As experts, and especially as people who appear and act publicly, it is important we keep to scientific knowledge and clinical practices based on science, and that when we talk about these issues from our positions as experts, and not from our personal standpoints.”
“Do you think it would be a different if the girl saw her father masturbate without pornography or if she saw her father and mother in sexual intercourse?”, responded Goran Arbanas.
He asks: “How can we conclude that the cause of this really is pornography? Scientific research are one thing and individual examples are something else. We can find examples where a child who has never seen anyone masturbate also lost her voice or her period, or whatever, “he said.
Stealing isn’t morally acceptable either, but it’s not harmful to health
Mia Roje believes that we cannot make generalized conclusions based on one example we have heard of. She also points out that studies conducted on this topic cannot be set up experimentally so we cannot talk about causes and consequences.
“In this type of research, we are mainly talking about correlations, or connections of some phenomena. For example, if there is a connection between consuming pornography and symptoms of mood disorder in young women, it is possible that watching pornography causes symptoms of mood disorder. It is also possible that women with mood disorder symptoms are more likely to watch pornography, and it is also possible that something else is affecting both the frequency of watching pornography as well as the development of mood disorders at the same time, “she says.
“Scientific view of exposure to pornography and its consequences is one thing, and someone’s moral view of pornography is another, but that’s also true with other things, for example theft is not morally acceptable, but is not harmful to health,” explains Arbanas.
When asked by journalists whether they have come across similar cases in their practice, Arbanas replied that he has not, while child psychologist Mia Roje said the following: “I cannot say that we had experience with having a girl lose her menstruation because she found her father watching porn but we have a lot of experience where children and young people who are subject to sexual abuse may have a series of traumatic reactions on the physical and emotional level. Child abuse can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including exposure to sexual content by adults, especially if that person is a family member”, she says.
It is crucial to determine whether pornography is associated with violence
The key element of the issue is determining whether pornography is associated with violence, warn experts.
When talking about children our Center is predominantly dealing with, especially children in the context of pornography and adult family members, then we are talking about sexual abuse, which is a completely separate topic.
“It is quite possible, expected even, that a child exposed to sexual content by adults will have a number of traumatic reactions,” says Roje.
Psychotherapist Arbanas says that in his experience such severe psychological situations are always associated with abuse. When talking about children, children cannot and should not have sex nor can they consent to sexual intercourse. But children can be exposed to abuse and those who experience abuse have lifelong consequences. Even adults who experience sexual violence may have psychological and sexual consequences”, says Arbanas.
If a person is willingly watching pornography, it is not sexual violence. Violence is if someone coerces us to watch pornography, and we don’t want to”, he adds.
“In children exposed to pornography, we often notice sexual behavior and inappropriate interest in sexuality at an early age. Sexual abuse is not just penetration, as many unfortunately still think”, Mia Roje warns and states that sexual abuse also includes exposing children to pornography, masturbation in front of a child, masturbating a child, etc.
“In cases when the child is exposed to this type of violence, it is necessary to contact the police and the Social Welfare Center as well as provide adequate psychological treatment for the child and other adults who take care about the child”, she says.
Parental supervision is limited, it’s important to talk to children
The development of information and communication technology significantly increased the availability of sexually explicit materials, and research shows that the widespread exposure of young people to pornography ranges from 7 to 93 percent.
One survey in Croatia showed that at least 27 percent of internet users aged 10 to 16 were exposed to pornography at least once and the average age of the first encounter with pornography in Croatia was 12.5 years.
With that in mind, three sociologists from the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Zagreb, Goran Koletić, Ivan Landripet and Alexander Štulhofer conducted a research on the importance of preventive role of parental control over the activities of their children and the use of sexually explicit content.
“The protective role of parental engagement is more established among girls, while among young men it may be important in the early stages of adolescence”, it is noted in an article published in the Journal of Social Work. “That’s not an easy thing to do considering that, for example, in one sample 88 % of young men and 66 % of girls used portable platforms to access sexually explicit content”, says research.
It is noted in the research that this situation shows the importance of communication about sex and sexuality between parents and children, and also that teenagers can develop the capacity to critically respond to sexualized Internet content through adequate education.
“This primarily concerns media literacy programs, whose effectiveness in the context of the use of sexually explicit content among young people also includes empirical insights, which could be useful to youth education professionals, but also to education and healthcare policy makers and parents.”, it is concluded in the research.
“If a child accidentally stumbles upon their parents watching pornography, and if the parent responds adequately to this, is not the same as when a parent deliberately exposes a child to pornography”, Mia Roje warns, explaining that the parent should stop watching, talk to the child about what they have seen and, if needed, seek professional help. ”
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