By Richard Jerome
April 26, 2004 12:00 PM

At suburban Riverdale Public School in New Jersey, a visitor recently posed a question to an eighth-grade class: “Have you seen Internet pornography?” All 42 students raised their hands.

One of them was 13-year-old Ryan Cleary, who admits to looking at Internet porn occasionally as a kind of research tool, so he’ll know more about what he’s supposed to do with girlfriends. “Guys will ask if I’ve gone to first base yet, so I got to figure things out. If you don’t know, they laugh at you,” he says. “Some guys look at porn out of curiosity and to figure out what they want to do with girls in the future.”

Like all teens, Ryan’s classmate Stephanie Struniewski, also 13, is blasted with beauty images everywhere from magazines to MTV. Yet she blames her ex-boyfriend’s interest in Internet porn for playing havoc with her self-image. “He told me he wanted me to look skinny like the porn girls,” she says. “He told me I was fat, that I was a hippo.”

Meet the cyberporn generation. According to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of the nation’s 15-to 17-year-olds have looked at Internet pornography, much of it graphically hardcore. The notion of adolescents peeping at risqué images is hardly novel, of course. And the Web, with its 24-hour anonymity and infinite variety—an estimated 1 million erotic Web sites, with chat rooms, video feeds and cascading porn pop-ups—superseded that tattered Playboy stashed under little Biff’s mattress years ago.

But now the first generation of kids who have never known a world without Internet porn is coming of age at a time when the culture at large is grappling with shifting standards of what constitutes decent exposure. “In the past, we had boundaries,” says psychologist Mary Ann Layden, director of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Therapy. “Now Paris Hilton, Pam and Tommy Lee make videos of themselves having sex. So the message is that it’s normal to watch people having sex.”

Nowhere is this new normal more evident, influential or accessible than on the Net. “The Internet provides a cookbook to kids and will become the de facto sex educator, not the parents, not the schools,” says behavioral scientist Ralph DiClemente of Atlanta’s Emory University, who has launched a $3 million, five-year study of kids and cyberporn sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. Research is in its infancy, but experts on teen behavior say they’re starting to see troubling results suggesting Internet porn could be distorting kids’ views about sex.

“Younger kids may not have much world experience, and Internet porn could shape their norms about relationships,” DiClemente says. With high-speed downloading, he adds, the difference between Playboy and Web porn is like that between riding a burro versus taking a Concorde. “Kids may wonder if it’s okay to degrade their partner. They may dissociate sex from intimacy. Trying to bring those two elements together down the road may be very difficult.”

For some more than others. Troy Busher was 12 the first time he saw pornography on the Internet—and he looked at it almost every day for the next nine years. “It’s all about female submission: ‘You’re my ho. Get down on your knees,’ ” he says. When he finally got a real girlfriend in high school, “she pretty much became like garbage to me,” says Busher, now 25 and a college student in Fullerton, Calif. “I was always demanding more, putting my hands in the wrong places. I acted like her body was mine and I could do what I wanted.” For those who are easily influenced by such images, it’s hard not to return to them, says psychiatrist Dr. Richard Blankenship, owner and director of the North Atlanta Center for Professional Counseling and Psychiatry. Graphic porn images, he says, make the brain “light up like a Christmas tree.” Which explains why Busher says, “I have more memories of porn than of childhood.”

Of course, pornographers argue that—in the right hands—porn has its place. As anyone in the industry will readily proclaim, millions of men and women enjoy Web erotica harmlessly, and some couples turn to porn to enhance their sex lives. Insiders also stress that the vast majority of adult sites are precisely that and have no interest in attracting children. “I’m happy to say most people who contact us do ask about how to keep out kids,” says Kevin Godbee, director of sales for a Boca Raton, Fla., company that operates as an “adult chamber of commerce” and publishes an Internet-porn trade magazine. “It’s a very, very small percentage of people involved in this industry that don’t have the highest moral and ethical standards.”

But there’s no question that hardcore sexual and violent images are readily available to kids on the Net. “I swear I receive 200 porn e-mails a day,” says Riverdale student Nick Homey, 14. “I’ve not only seen a man and a woman having sex on the Internet, but a man, a woman and a donkey.” According to the Kaiser study, 83 percent of 15-to 17-year-olds have Internet access at home—a third of them in their bedrooms. It used to be that “when a 15-year-old looked at Playboy, he had to put it away quickly because his dad was coming,” says psychologist Layden. “Now kids can end up at torture sites.”

Even if kids aren’t looking for porn, it will find them, through links in spam e-mails, instant messages and recurring pop-up ads, a practice known as mousetrapping that can sometimes only be stopped by going to a site or shutting down the computer. Filters only do so much. “Any kid with any kind of smarts can get around a filter,” says Jason, 20, a college student who only recently swore off Internet porn. Besides, he adds, “I would go to 20 sites, and 18 would be filtered—there were always two or so that wouldn’t be.”

If that comes as a surprise to parents, Herbert Lin of the National Research Council has two words: Pay attention. At the behest of Congress, Lin led a 2002 project on Youth, Pornography and the Internet. What he learned was “how clueless parents are about what their kids do on the Internet,” he says. “If kids have a problem, many parents don’t know.”

Debbie Holt’s two teenage boys didn’t have a problem, and she always gave them privacy and space. Then the Maryland insurance broker received a suspicious bill from a place called Alyon Technologies, charging $184 for “adult content.” It turned out that her 14-year-old had clicked on a pop-up window that led him to a porn site. “I’m not such a strict parent that I ban my kids from seeing R-rated movies,” she says. “But what bothered me about this was that I had absolutely no idea what they were seeing. They could have seen two kids going at it.”

Above all, Holt was incensed that it had all happened so easily: When a proof-of-age box appeared, her son clicked “Yes, I am 18,” and the site began billing by the minute. So she lodged complaints with congressmen, police and the Federal Trade Commission. The Maryland attorney general’s office and the FTC pressured Alyon, which finally refunded her money eight months later. (She also started a Web site for other concerned parents but shut it down after it was overrun with postings by pornographers.) “If kids want to buy cigarettes, the [vendor] has to card them,” she says, adding that online purchases usually require some personal info, such as a credit card number. “What child is going to say, ‘Uh-uh, my parents said I couldn’t go into that site’?”

As the father of an 8-year-old boy, James DiGiorgio understands that frustration. But as a producer of porn movies, about 90 percent of which wind up on the Internet, he grows somewhat defensive. Though Jimmy D., as he is known, admits that some in the industry are unscrupulous about luring children, “I don’t think we’re the only business that is sometimes promoting an unhealthy view of the world and sexuality,” he says. DiGiorgio believes it’s a parent’s responsibility to protect kids from seeing porn on the Net. “My son is not going to get on the Internet without supervision from me or my wife. Parents need to be very, very involved.”

But even the most involved parent can feel helpless in the face of irrepressibly curious teens. Craig Nelson, a financial consultant in Orange County Calif., has two teenage sons and a computer. Do the math. “I went into the computer history one day, and sure enough, there were a few pornography Web sites,” says Nelson, 49. “I figured they had stumbled onto it.” When those sites kept proliferating in the history, Nelson confronted the boys and moved their desktop to the family room. When the PC gave out, he bought a wireless laptop. Unable to trust the boys alone at home with it, he began taking the computer along whenever he and his wife went out to dinner. In the house, he made the boys sit at the kitchen bar, in plain sight, when going online.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But “they’ll visit 25, 30, 40 different [porn] sites with their mom standing there cooking,” says Nelson, awed by their brazenness. “A couple of nights ago, I was walking upstairs and back down again and in that two or three minutes my older son looked at some porn and then got out of it.” Nelson has since installed a password known only to him and his wife, so their sons can go online only when a parent is present. When he discusses his dilemma with other parents, he’s stunned by their denials. “I ask if their kids struggle with pornography on the Internet, and 99.9 percent say, ‘No, not at all,’ ” Nelson says. “I have no doubt that they’re being naive.”

Richard Jerome. Joanne Fowler in New York City, Riverdale and Fullerton, Devan Stuart in Jacksonville, Fla., Joanna Blonska in Washington, D.C., Pam Grout in Lawrence, Kans., and Jason Bane in Denver