Does Viewing Pornography Online Harm Children and Teens?

By on 12-07-2020

What Parents need to know about the negative effects of porn and how to protect young kids against accidental exposure to sexual content

As access to the internet has skyrocketed for children and teens, so have concerns about access to potentially dangerous and developmentally detrimental content. Online pornography exposure certainly is near the top of the list for most parents when it comes to safety concerns for their children. These concerns are well-founded, as research has shown an increasing number of children and teens being exposed to pornographic content online, and a significant set of psychological and physical risks associated with it. In my practice, I see many children and teens each year who have experienced the negative impacts of online pornography exposure, and parents who wish they could go back in time and pay more attention to digital safety in their home.

Survey results have shown that by the time boys and girls reach the age of 14-15 years old, 66% have seen pornography at some point.  Over 90% of boys and 60% of girls are exposed to pornographic content at some point during adolescence. The average age of initial pornography exposure online is thought to be around 11 years of age, although there is evidence that children as young as age 5 see some type of sexually explicit material via device use. This is highly concerning, as studies have shown that exposure to this type of sexual content during childhood and adolescence is linked to increased risk of anxiety, sexual exploitation, sexual aggression, and addiction. Beyond that, there are significant concerns surrounding the impact of viewing pornography on future intimate relationships, as what is conveyed in pornographic content is generally unsafe and does not portray healthy sexual relationships.

Given that children and teens are living in a digital age, and even more-so now with many attending a significant amount of their school day online, it is imperative that parents take steps to support children’s health and safely where online pornography is concerned. Many parents feel uncomfortable addressing this sensitive topic with children, and may not understand the reality of what their children are exposed to online – often unintentionally. The majority of children, especially younger children, are exposed to pornographic images without intentionally searching for them, as they can show up in pop-ups or benign image searches. 

While approximately 75% of parents believe their children have never been exposed to online sexual content, statistics show that over 60% of kids have seen pornographic content of some type. The statistics hold true for females and males, although many parents believe their boys are more likely to engage in viewing or sending sexual content. This highlights the fact that this exposure generally occurs without parent awareness. In my experience counseling children, it is almost always the case that parents deny their child has the opportunity for exposure to explicit sexual content. The children, however, tell a very different story, and parents tend to be shocked when they discover what their kids have been able to access in their own home or on mobile devices given to them. 

While it may be more comfortable to avoid the issue of children and pornography altogether, it is detrimental to their development and increases the likelihood that they will be victimized. Here are several important steps parents can take today to address the issue of online pornography with children, and increase their safety when using digital devices and media:

Steps parents can take today to address the issue of online pornography with children

  • Talk with children about what pornography is, and share your values. Be clear about what constitutes pornographic/sexual content, and that it includes not only images and videos on websites, but also the texts, social media messages, and other things they may send to or receive from others. Let them know that you understand they will be (or may already have been) exposed, and want to give them information to help them stay safe and healthy. Normalize the fact that most kids are curious about sex and bodies, and keep the conversation free of shame or anger. Discuss the differences between sexual images and acts they may see online and real-life sexual activity. As children grow into the teen years, the conversation should include the importance of safe vs. unsafe sex, and what constitutes sexual violence and exploitation.  
  • Make sure your children know they can talk to you about anything they see online, without risk of being punished. It’s important that children can come to adults with questions, concerns, and safety issues.
  • Clearly explain your family’s expectations and policy on accessing or viewing pornography, and the measures you have in place to support safety and health. This should include things like not allowing younger children to use devices and the internet in private places, and children of all ages shouldn’t be using devices in their bedrooms at night. This allows parents to be more aware of what kids are accessing and exposed to. Another helpful strategy is to sit down periodically with children and their devices to discuss what they have been searching, the things they are doing on social media, etc.
  • Install and use parental controls on any device your children use. Young children, up through elementary school age, should have restrictions that aim to block all sexual or dangerous content. As children grow into the pre-teen and teen years, restrictions can be adjusted to reflect their increasing maturity and ability to engage in safe online behavior. However, even for teens it is wise to have restrictions on adult sexual content given the research-based concerns about negative impact on healthy sexual and relational development and addiction. 

Qustodio is an excellent choice for supporting safe and healthy online behavior in children, and can be easily adjusted as children grow and mature. While parental controls are helpful for restricting inappropriate content, perhaps the most valuable benefit is the opportunities they provide for ongoing discussion about online behavior. The more parents are aware of what their children are doing online, the more productive conversations around health, safety, relationships, and communication can occur.

The internet provides many wonderful benefits to our children, but it’s also necessary to recognize the ever-increasing risks that can occur in a digital environment. As with most health and safety topics parents need to discuss with children, the conversation about pornography should be ongoing. What starts as a basic and factual conversation at the elementary ages should grow into a more detailed conversation about sexual information, values, safety, and personal choices as children grow toward adulthood. Parents need to proactively prevent their child's exposure to pornography and to any potentially harmful content whenever possible, as opposed to figuring out how to deal with the problems that occur after a child has been harmed. 

While it is unrealistic to think that youth will be fully shielded from sexually explicit and potentially dangerous content, despite parents’ best intentions, it is very possible to guide them toward safe and healthy sexual knowledge and wellness by using appropriate internet controls and keeping the line of conversation open. 

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Nicole Beurkens, PhD, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Nutritionist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of children with serious developmental and mental health conditions. She has successfully treated over 1,000 children and families during her 20 years in practice using nutrition, lifestyle, and mental health techniques.

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