It’s not exactly a surprise that a lot of pornography portrays harmful ideas of what romance and sexual relationships look like. But as the rapid growth and acceptance of the porn industry suggests, society tends to tolerate these problematic depictions. We tend to think that porn watchers can separate fantasy from reality, but research has shown that it really does change viewers’ expectations of sex in a negative way.

And it’s even more problematic when those viewers are kids, say psychologists.

In America, the average kid is only 11 years old when they’re first exposed to pornography. That’s a troubling figure, according to researchers at the American Psychological Association’s 125th annual convention in early August, who recently found that men who started watching porn at an earlier age were more likely to seek power over women. But, unexpectedly, their study showed adult males who think men should emulate the promiscuous lifestyle of a playboy were those who discovered porn later in life.

“If they were exposed younger they had more time with it or it had more of an impact on them,” Christina Richardson, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln who led the study, explained to Inverse.

porn young exposure
Boys who watch porn at an early age are more likely to seek power over women.

In their study, Richardson and her co-author Alyssa Bischmann, also a doctoral candidate, surveyed 330 undergraduate students ages 17 to 54 to investigate the relationship between the age of first porn exposure and adult attitudes toward sex. These men filled out the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory, an extensive survey designed to figure out which — and to what extent — men embody various stereotypes of what it means to be manly.

To rate their belief that men ought to have power over women, the participants were asked to what extent they agreed with statements like “things tend to be better when men are in charge” or “women should be subservient to men.” Men who viewed porn at an early age were more likely to agree wholeheartedly.

“The relationship between age and power over women belief was something we expected,” says Richardson. “It makes sense that the longer someone is exposed to that the more they’re going to endorse this behavior.”

While she and Bischmann expected this effect of early porn exposure, Richardson admits that their findings on the early lives of adult playboys was surprising — and unexplainable, for now.

“We don’t have a lot of theories that would explain this unexpected inverse relationship between pornography use and playboy norms,” Richardson said in a release, explaining that there’s little other academic research on how the age of exposure to pornography impacts men.

In her future work, Richardson hopes to explore how the actual content of pornography affects men’s views and, importantly, why. But in the meantime, she hopes her work will inspire parents to have frank discussions with their children about sex.

In particular, Richardson says, she hopes to “make sure they’re talking to their sons and giving them a more balanced view of what it means to be a man and have relationships with women so they’re getting a healthier perspective.”