Parents often worry about the potential effects that viewing sexually explicit materials online may have on their children and adolescents. Their chief concern? Such materials may normalize behaviors they fear to be beyond the ken of a young individual.

Yet a new study suggests that although watching sexually explicit media is one of a number of factors that may shape the sexual behaviors of adolescents and young adults, it may not be as directly linked as previously thought.

Gert Martin Hald, PhD, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, explained that data culled from his recent study suggest that other factors -such as personal dispositions, specifically sexual sensation seeking-rather than consumption of sexually explicit material may play a more important role in a range of sexual behaviors of younger individuals.

"The effects of sexually explicit media on sexual behaviors in reality need to be considered in conjunction with such factors," he said.

Hald and his colleagues conducted an online survey of 4,600 young people aged 15 to 25 years who lived in The Netherlands. The survey revealed that 88 percent of males and 45 percent of females had watched sexually explicit material (through the Internet, magazines, videos, television, and/or other media) in the past 12 months.

A direct association exists between watching sexually explicit media and a variety of sexual behaviors — in particular adventurous sex and sex that involves the exchange of money — even when a number of other factors were taken into account.

However, the association is modest, accounting for between 0.3 percent and four percent of differences in sexual behaviors.

The study's authors indicate that their findings may be particularly informative for policy makers and educators who are concerned about young individual's exposure to sexually explicit media consumption.

Clearly Hald's findings fly in the face of what many child advocates believe.

For example, a piece produced by the Canadian Center for Child Protection Inc., "Impact of Viewing Sexually Explicit Material," warns of an increased access to sexually explicit material. Clearly designated an informative tool for parents and educators, it applies to children in the age range of K-9, which would include 15 year olds, among the subjects of Hald's study.

The online flyer specifically states, "Research suggests that early exposure to sexually explicit material is likely to have a negative influence on children." And, in a list of the possible impacts of overexposure to sexually explicit content, the piece includes: "May incite them to experiment with sexually explicit behavior."

Although compelling, the results of the new study might be difficult for educators and child welfare advocates to incorporate into their world view.