If the reader of this article were to be asked what is the percentage of adolescents (between 12 and 18 years old) who regularly watch pornographic content, what percentage would occur to him?

Since 2007 I have been conducting empirical studies about the lifestyles of adolescents and young people: I have interviewed more than 25,000 from all the continents, and continue to do so. After so many years of empirical work in the area, with the intention of transmitting to the world the voice of so many young people who have told me their stories, I decided to dedicate more time to teaching in universities. Among the topics I must address is the effects of communication media, I usually ask my students the question I stated above.

Both undergraduate and graduate students estimate that 80 percent of adolescents, worldwide (much is said about how the internet has globalized customs) regularly view pornographic content. Well, that figure speaks of their perception.

Probably, if it were only a matter of an occasional comment from my students, I would not have bothered to write an article. However, aware of the spreading “moral panic” — including among academics — about adolescent use of pornography and related topics (for example, harassment in schools), I think it proper to offer two pieces of scientific information and a reflection to play down the alarm – without denying the importance of the social problem.

In the first place, just last year two Dutch researchers published a review of 20 years of research on this subject (Peter and Valkenburg, 2016). Their study demonstrates that the percentage of adolescents who use pornography varies greatly from country to country, and that only 59 percent of the investigations used random samples. These studies provide no basis for a global picture or for generalising the conclusions of their various authors. In fact there are studies in which only 87 subjects responded. The greater part of the scientific literature is produced in Western countries, like the United States, where some companies trade in this type of negative content for the youth.

Attempting to respond to the initial question, what does the data show? There are only two countries with more than 80 percent consumption among adolescents: the United States and Sweden. In Italy, by contrast, a study from 2006 found the figure was 36 percent.

Another recent study (Stanley et al, 2016) in five European countries confirmed this: the proportion of adolescents who regularly consume pornography varies between 19 percent and 30 percent, with a greater consumption among males (for example in Italy, 44  percent of males vs. 5 percent of females).

The consumption of pornography is growing and is a grave problem for the positive development of young people (Eberstadt, Layden, & Witherspoon Institute, 2010). But it is not a problem that affects the majority of adolescents.

Generating a moral panic based on unproved data would not only increase (at times with the objective of selling “programs of prevention”) collective ignorance; it would also make one think that the greater part of humanity regularly views this material when connecting to the Internet.

As a consequence, the exception could come to be seen as the norm. In a society that has a reduced sense of moral harm, this could cause people to think that this type of consumption is not so grave, since the majority is doing it.

My reflection: so much insistence on alarming data about consumption could make us think that the majority of young people are addicted to vice, and could diminish our energy for confronting more important problems. In a word, we would miss the forest for the trees. We could be spending our limited resources on programmes (many of them for commercial gain and generally not evaluated) that only minimize the effects of deeper problems, which, being more profound, are less visible and more difficult to resolve.

In 2016 I published together with colleagues in Colombia and Spain a study on the subject (Rivera, Santos & García, 2016). In the article we showed that mass media consumption has increased markedly in recent years (it reaches 39 percent of Colombian adolescents), and as consequence the proliferation of risky consumption, including pornography.

Nevertheless, after presenting the factors that scientific literature indicates as being associated with this dangerous behaviour, we highlighted, based on data from a representative sample of more than 9,000 adolescents:

“… that relational lifestyles allow us to explain in part the consumption of pornography: positive intra-family styles are associated with a reduction in consumption and the opposite happens with negative intra-family styles. On the other hand, it has been found that the relationship between values and the consumption of pornography is mediated as much by positive intra-family styles as by negative ones .”

In other words, consumption of pornography and other risky behaviours are a consequence (not exclusive but significant) of relational anorexia: interactions in the family and in primary groups do not succeed in creating and transmitting relational goods that offer young people clear orientations for their decisions. The adolescents of the twenty-first century find themselves alone in making decisions about media content consumption.

It is as if, instead of feeding their children a healthy diet, the parents gave them one based on fats and sugars. The problem of obesity could be resolved, in part, by replacing these foods and alerting the public to their irresponsible decisions. But the best thing would be to motivate and provide concrete help to families so that they find moments to share well-prepared meals, with artistry and care, that satisfy not only the need for food but spiritual needs as well.

Someone who knows by experience what a good steak tastes like does not become enthused over a hamburger and a bag of potato chips. Someone who knows what a good man and a good woman are, because they have seen and felt it in their parents and teachers, does not become enthused by the brutality of pornographic violence.

Reynaldo Rivera is the editor of Rome-based Family and Media, a MercatorNet partner site. This article is a slightly edited version of the original.