Teens & Young Adults Use Porn More Than Anyone Else by Barna Group


Sex sells. Or, to put it in 21st century terms, sex gets clicks.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops have revolutionized the way people encounter images. Pictures and videos are easily accessible with one swipe or click; it takes very little effort to encounter sexually explicit content on apps like Snapchat and Instagram. Even mainstream media is infused with sexualized images and ideas—one needs only to see an Axe commercial, a primetime Miley Cyrus performance or a “reality” show like The Bachelor for confirmation.

This “pornification” of popular culture means younger generations are coming of age in a hypersexualized cultural ecosystem. They, in turn, tend to be more open to sexual experimentation and self-expression—leading to further social acceptance of sexually explicit content. One cannot help but wonder where this self-perpetuating feedback loop will end.

For a landmark study commissioned by Josh McDowell Ministry, Barna Group interviewed American teens, young adults and older adults about their views on and use of pornography. Among many notable findings, researchers discovered that teens and young adults have a more cavalier attitude toward porn than adults 25 and older. In addition, young adults ages 18 to 24 seek out and view porn more often than any other generation.

Porn Use

How often do people view porn? This is not an easy question to answer, particularly because sexually charged imagery is ubiquitous in places like online newsfeeds, pop-up ads, texts, search engines, billboards, window merchandising, TV commercials, and signs. So for instance, if someone is not actively seeking out porn, but they come across it, does it count as viewing?

Rather than merely asking how often people view porn—which would return a vague and nebulous measure, at best—Barna triangulated data related to porn viewing and a person’s intention to view porn. Researchers asked a nationally representative panel ages 13 and older 1) how often they “come across” porn, even if they are not seeking it out, and 2) how often they “actively seek out” porn. The first question ignores any intention and so returns the highest possible percentage of viewing frequency, while the latter focuses solely on intentional viewing and thus returns a lower percentage. How frequently people actually view porn likely falls somewhere between the two percentages.


Of all the age ranges, young adults between 18 years old and 24 years old are the most likely to come across porn on a regular basis. More than seven in 10 say they come across porn at least once or twice a month (71%). Only three in 10 say they never or rarely run into pornographic content. In contrast, between 50 and 60 percent of teens (50%), older Millennials ages 25 to 30 (54%) and Gen-Xers (58%) come across porn at least once or twice a month. Roughly half report never or only rarely stumbling onto sexually explicit content. Boomers (40%) are less likely than younger Americans to say they run across porn at least once or twice a month.

The reason young adults come across porn more often is likely a result of seeking it out more often. In cross-referencing how frequently someone comes across porn with how often he or she seeks it out—you find a direct correlation. It would appear that actively searching for porn increases one’s chances of coming across porn, perhaps as a result of browser cookies and responsive advertising. If a person seeks porn on a daily basis, he or she is more likely to come across porn on a daily basis. The same goes for those who seek it out weekly, once or twice a month and less often.


Young adults, ages 18-24 are both more likely to actively seek porn regularly and more likely to come across porn more often. Fifty-seven percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 report seeking out porn at least once or twice a month, compared to 37 percent of teens, 43 percent of older Millennials, 41 percent of Gen-Xers, and just 17 percent of Boomers.

Moral or Immoral?

Teens, young adults and adults 25 and older rated a series of action statements according to a five-point scale: “always OK,” “usually OK,” “neither wrong nor OK,” “usually wrong” and “always wrong.” Combining the percentages of those who chose always and usually wrong for each statement, a picture emerges of where using porn ranks on a list of possible immoral actions.

The short answer? Low. Barely half of adults say viewing porn is wrong (54%) and it ranks all the way down at #7 on a list of 11 actions—behind overeating (58%), which is #4.


Teens and young adults are roughly 10 percentage points less likely than older adults to think each of the actions is wrong. In addition, the ranking order below the top three are quite different between the younger and older age cohorts. Actions that may negatively impact the environment rank higher among teens and young adults. And notably, teens think “not recycling” is more immoral than any of the actions related to porn use.

Younger Americans seem to have morally indifferent attitudes toward porn. Only one-third of 13- to 24-year-olds believes viewing pornographic images is always or usually wrong (32%), compared to more than half of older adults (54%). About one-quarter says reading erotic content (27%) or watching sexually explicit TV or movie scenes (24%) is immoral.

Teens’ and young adults’ nonchalance is also revealed in how, and how often, they talk with their friends about porn. One-third of 18- to 24-year-olds (34%) and one in six teens (18%) say they talk about porn very often or occasionally with their friends. And among those who do chat with their friends on the topic, half do so either in an accepting (36%) or even encouraging, lighthearted (16%) way.


This level of casual acceptance makes sense when half of young adults (49%) and one-third of teens (32%) say that “all” or “most” of their friends regularly view porn.


What the Research Means

“There appears to be a momentous generational shift underway in how pornography is perceived, morally speaking, within our culture,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group and one of the lead designers and analysts on the study. “This shift is particularly notable when it comes to personal choice regarding pornography use. But these attitudes and preferences toward porn among the younger generations need to take into account the broader social and cultural context that American young people inhabit.”

“For one, they are coming of age in a culture that has given preference to personal experience and personal morality,” continues Stone. “Amy Poehler summed it up nicely, ‘Good for you, not for me.’ Americans are increasingly uncomfortable prescribing a morality for other people—and aren’t eager to have someone else prescribe one for them. Teens and young adults have embraced this ethos and in turn place a high value on personal freedom and autonomy, tending to shirk restrictions, particularly censorship.”

“Further, the mainstream acceptance of pornography, and the broader pornification of popular culture send a powerful message to young people about the moral condition of porn. We’ve seen cultural icons such as Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus generously rewarded for their public displays of private moments. And now, with broadcast tools at their fingertips, young people have the ability to produce their own personal pornography—via Instagram, Snapchat or just plain ‘sexting.’ Such personal, interactive porn is something we are calling ‘Porn 2.0’ and we will be releasing more of our research on that in the coming months.”

“These realities are fueling more cavalier attitudes and high rates of porn usage among the younger generations,” says Stone. “This is concerning for a number of reasons: studies have shown that seeing a vast amount of pornography long before becoming sexually active can have damaging effects because of the amount of sexual conditioning that occurs in adolescence. Ill-timed exposure to explicit material could cause lifelong problems with relationships and personal sexual health, and create unrealistic beliefs about sex and sexuality.”

“In our research, we’re finding that many adults—especially parents and even pastors—feel ill equipped to face the reality and ubiquity of porn and its use,” continues Stone. “But, without guidance, today’s young people are often left to their own devices to navigate the complex task of developing beliefs about sexuality. As young people develop beliefs and behaviors in a hyper-sexualized technological age where pornography is more accessible than ever, parents must be willing to discuss sexual topics with their children, and the church at-large needs to provide a robust—and appealing—counter narrative to the one perpetuated by pornography. This would entail challenging the distorted narrative of the porn industry by creating realistic expectations for sex and its purpose, and acknowledging the beauty and promise of sex within its proper context.”

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