Sex-related online behaviors and experiences

Sex-Related Online Behaviors, Perceived Peer Norms and Adolescents’ Experience with Sexual Behavior: Testing an Integrative Model

By Suzan M. Doornwaard, Tom F. M. ter Bogt, Ellen Reitz, and Regina J. J. M. van den Eijnden


Research on the role of sex-related Internet use in adolescents’ sexual development has often isolated the Internet and online behaviors from other, offline influencing factors in adolescents’ lives, such as processes in the peer domain. The aim of this study was to test an integrative model explaining how receptive (i.e., use of sexually explicit Internet material [SEIM]) and interactive (i.e., use of social networking sites [SNS]) sex-related online behaviors interrelate with perceived peer norms in predicting adolescents’ experience with sexual behavior. Structural equation modeling on longitudinal data from 1,132 Dutch adolescents (Mage T1 = 13.95; range 11-17; 52.7% boys) demonstrated concurrent, direct, and indirect effects between sex-related online behaviors, perceived peer norms, and experience with sexual behavior. SEIM use (among boys) and SNS use (among boys and girls) predicted increases in adolescents’ perceptions of peer approval of sexual behavior and/or in their estimates of the numbers of sexually active peers. These perceptions, in turn, predicted increases in adolescents’ level of experience with sexual behavior at the end of the study. Boys’ SNS use also directly predicted increased levels of experience with sexual behavior. These findings highlight the need for multisystemic research and intervention development to promote adolescents’ sexual health.


Over the past decade, a growing body of research from various parts of the world has addressed the role of sex-related online behaviors in adolescents’ sexual development. Sex-related online behaviors refer to the use of the Internet for activities revolving around sexually tinted arousal/entertainment, information-seeking, communication, exploration, self-portrayal, and cybersex [1, 2]. Such behaviors can be receptive, communicating sexual content one-way from medium to user, or interactive, enabling users to create, distribute, and comment on sexual content. In the receptive category, adolescents’ use of sexually explicit internet material (SEIM) has received particular attention, and a substantial number of studies have sought to document the attitudinal, emotional, and behavioral consequences of exposure to this material (for a review, see [3]). With regard to interactive online behaviors, Social Networking Sites (SNS) have recently been researched as potentially powerful platforms for adolescents to form and evaluate conceptions of sexuality and sexual attractiveness, as well as to experiment with and portray one’s sexual identity [4–6]. Unlike SEIM use, SNS use is a social activity that is not explicitly sexual in genre; most adolescents do not engage in this behavior for the purpose of seeking exposure to sexual content. Nonetheless, as several studies [e.g., 4–6] have pointed out, when using SNSs adolescents may be exposed to sex-related messages by peers, engage in sexual communication with other users, or create and distribute sex-related content themselves. Evidence to date indicates that SEIM use and SNS use predict various aspects of adolescents’ developing sexuality. These include more permissive and instrumental attitudes toward sex [7–9], less satisfaction with one’s sexual experience [2, 10], more body surveillance and body image concerns [2, 11, 12], and earlier and more advanced experience with sexual behavior [7, 8].

However, apart from what they predict, much less is known about how these sex-related online behaviors shape adolescents’ sexual development. Remarkably, studies on the effects of sex-related Internet use have often isolated the Internet and online behavior from other, offline processes in young people’s lives [13, 14]. This is in contrast with prominent ecological and multisystemic approaches–such as Bronfenbrenner’s [15] Ecological Systems Theory–that conceptualize sexual development as the outcome of multiple influencing and interrelating systems [16]. Among the multiple systems of influence in adolescents’ lives, peers are considered to be of particular importance. During adolescence, young people spend large amounts of time with their friends, and they put substantial value on the expectations and opinions of peers [17, 18]. Consistent with this notion, meta-analytic evidence has indicated that perceived peer norms regarding sexuality strongly guide adolescents’ sexual decision-making. Specifically, perceptions of peers’ approval of sexual behavior (i.e., injunctive norms) and perceptions of peers’ sexual behavior (i.e., descriptive norms) have been found to predict adolescents’ own sexual activity [19].

Given the increasing engagement with both the Internet and peers during adolescence [17, 18, 20] and the fact that some online behaviors–particularly interactive behaviors as SNS use–take place at least partly in a peer context, it seems necessary that research takes an integrative approach to better understand how these systems interrelate and combine in shaping adolescents’ sexual development. Drawing on key theories in the domains of media and peer effects, the goal of the current study was to test an integrative model explaining how two sex-related online behaviors (i.e., SEIM use and SNS use) are linked to perceived peer norms in predicting adolescents’ experience with real-life sexual behavior.



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