Prospective Biopsychosocial Study of the Effects of Sexually Explicit Material on Young People’s Sexual Socialization and Health

The PROBIOPS study is funded by the Croatian Science Foundation (grant no. 9221).

Digital technology has enabled an unprecedented availability and  unrestricted use of sexually explicit material (SEM), which triggered the process of social normalization of SEM, particularly among younger generations. Considering that today the first experiences with SEM almost invariably precede first sexual experiences, concerns have been raised about the potential impact of its use on children’s and young people’s sexual socialization and subsequent reproductive and sexual health outcomes. In addition, frequent SEM use has been hypothesized to promote sexual callousness and systematically undermine the motivation and capacity for building and maintaining relationship intimacy.

Conceptualization and Study Aims

Conceptually, the study is based on a biopsychosocial behavioral model, which stresses the importance of the following groups of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors: (I) Intrapersonal dimension (personality traits, sensation seeking, mood, and testosterone levels); (II) Interpersonal dimension (peer group and partners); (III) Sociocultural dimension (parents’ socioeconomic status and religiosity, parental control and parenting style). 

This study aims to systematically analyze the effects of SEM on young people’s socialization, reproductive health, and emotional wellbeing. To enable a robust analytical assessment, we set up a 3-year panel sample with over 1,000 high-school students from the capital city area.  In comparison to the existing longitudinal research, this study has several advantages. First, it will follow panel participants for a longer period (36 months) and on greater number of occasions (six study waves). Secondly, it will assess a broader range of possible outcomes, thus offering a more comprehensive perspective of SEM use among young people. The study will enable an exploration of developmentally different types of predictors and moderators, including personality traits, personal appraisal of SEM, parenting style, and social network structure – thus improving analytical reach. Finally, the study will also include a sexuality-relevant biological component, which was not included in the previous studies.

The study has a distinct interdisciplinary character, combining concepts and empirical insights from sociology of youth, media and communication research, social psychology, and public health. The study is expected to improve the knowledge about the effects of SEM exposure and use on adolescent reproductive and sexual health, as well as on adolescents’ attitudes toward gender equality, intimacy, and committed relationships.

Data Analytic Methods

The study uses a longitudinal design with multiple wave panel data. Repeated measures multivariate analysis of variance will be used to examine the dynamics of changes in the average score levels of the key measures over the three year period with multiple time points, and with reference to hypothesized moderating independent factors. Having in mind the correlational and multivariate nature of the study design, and the types of variables to be collected, structural equation modeling techniques will be used for research hypothesis testing, especially when analyzing latent variables. Several variants of the cross-lagged latent variable models with panel data will be formulated and tested to answer key questions on the direction of relationships among the main study constructs.