Before the Internet, studies indicated that people who looked at a lot of erotica built up a tolerance, driving them to seek out more extreme and explicit materials. "These days the Web—with its virtually unlimited content, variety and anonymity—feeds that compulsion in a way that, say, a magazine never could," says DiClemente.
Even so, the vast majority of adolescents exposed to cyberporn don't become addicted. "There's no data showing a huge catastrophe here," J. Dennis Fortenberry, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. "Most young people will see and interact with Internet pornography—just like they'll experiment with other electronic media—and move on."
The small percentage of kids who end up developing psychological problems are generally those with preexisting addictive tendencies or compulsions. Other factors, including boredom, social isolation and depression, can also increase a child's vulnerability, according to Stephen Schultz, a partner at the Oxbow Academy residential treatment center for teen sex addiction located in Wales, Utah.
But there are troubling signs that regular exposure can affect what experts call the "adolescent's sexual script." In other words, kids may come to believe that what they're seeing online is normal or at least acceptable. Because Internet porn seldom reflects realistic interaction between partners, kids who see a lot of it are more likely to dissociate sex from intimacy, according to research done at the University of Amsterdam. Both males and females also appear to have distorted views of sexual gender roles in real life. "Girls are more inclined to be submissive because that's how women are usually portrayed," says Brown. Her work also suggests that boys who watch porn from a young age are more likely to harass others, and that adolescents who frequently view explicit erotica tend to start having intercourse earlier. Still, she and other experts can't say whether it is the cause of such behaviors. "Most likely, it doesn't create problems but can trigger a downward spiral for kids who are already inclined that way," says Brown.
Here's the good news for parents everywhere: No matter how pervasive or accessible, the Internet is not the most powerful determinant of adolescent sexual behavior, and you can take steps to shield your kids from cyberporn. "For the past six years we've surveyed teens and they consistently tell us that it's their parents—not their peers or popular culture—who have the greatest influence on their decisions about sex," says Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington, D.C. "The closest thing we have to a magic bullet is parents and children working together to create a connected, communicative family."