Third-Person Effect, Gender, and Pornography on the Internet

Article excerpt

The rapid, worldwide growth of the Internet leads to unprecedented opportunities in applications in business, communication, education, and entertainment (Hagel & Armstrong, 1997; Johnson, 1997; Schawrtz, 1997; Tapscott, Lowy, & Ticoll, 1998). Commercial interests act as a driving force behind these applications, but one of the byproducts is sex--lots of it. Sex is one of the most researched keywords on the Internet. Pornographic web sites have shown tremendous growth in the past few years, increasing by nearly 300 a day (Chen, 1999) and $700 million a year (Hapgood, 1996). They now total approximately 170,000. "Cybersex" or "cyberporn" came hand-in-glove with global interconnectivity. (1)

Pornography on the Internet is unique because sexually explicit materials posted on the Internet differ from traditional forms of pornographic materials, such as magazines and videos, in several important ways: (a) It is widely available through Bulletin Board Services (BBS) groups and via the World Wide Web through database accesses, interactive services, e-mail, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and real-time data feeds; (b) it is active and interactive through the presentation of materials in multimedia formats such as digitized moving images, animated sequences, sexually explicit texts, hot chats, and interactive sexual games; and (c) consumers also are producers of pornographic materials. (2) As Catherine MacKinnon (1995) put it: "Pornography in cyberspace is pornography in society--just broader, deeper, worse, and more of it" (p. 1959).

Research on pornography in cyberspace is burgeoning. Some studies have content analyzed pornographic materials posted and distributed on the Internet (Heider & Harp, 2000; Mehta & Plaza, 1997; Rimm, 1995). A few experimental studies have explored the effects of Internet pornography on attitudes and behavior (Barak, Fisher, Belfry, & Lashambe, 1999; Mahood, Kalyanaraman, & Sundar, 2000). This study seeks to contribute to the growing research literature on Internet pornography by using large-scale survey data to examine the actual use and perceived effects of exposure to Internet pornography within a third-person effect theoretical framework.

The support for the third-person effect has been consistently robust in the past decade (Perloff, 1993, 1999). Several studies found that a majority of respondents tend to perceive pornography to have greater negative influence on others than on themselves (Gunther, 1995; Lee & Yang, 1996; Lo & Paddon, 1999; Rojas, Shah, & Faber, 1996). Other studies focusing on the behavioral component of the third-person effect predicted successfully that third-person perceptions would lead to support for media restrictions on such things as press coverage of criminal television content (Gunther & Ang, 1996), violence on television (Hoffner et al., 1999; Rojas et al., 1996; Salwen & Dupagne, 1999), and negative political advertising (Rucinski & Salmon, 1990).

Oddly, however, third-person effect research has paid scant attention to Internet pornography. The availability and quantity of Internet pornography, the multifaceted nature of its delivery, and the active role that its consumers play suggest that many people will condemn cyberporn as causing greater social harm than traditional pornography. From a theoretical standpoint, these distinctive features of Internet pornography should not only inject the third-person effect into Internet communication but also magnify it compared to traditional mass media. Thus, research on effects of Internet pornography with a third-person effect theoretical perspective is timely and worthwhile.

Moreover, although previous studies found that women were more likely than men to associate pornographic materials with negative effects and were also more likely to support restrictions on pornography (Gunther, 1995; Thiessen, 1994; Thompson, Chaffee, & Oshagan, 1990; Wilson & Abelson, 1973), none of them addressed theoretically the relationships among gender, perceived effects of pornography on self and other males or females, and support for censorship of pornography. …