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What is online pornography doing to 'smartphone kids'?


15 June 2016

According to a new report from Middlesex University, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the NSPCC, most children have seen online pornography by the age of 15.

The research, which claims to be the most extensive survey of 11-16 year olds regarding online pornography, examines the effect of pornographic content on young people’s beliefs and behaviours. It comes at a time when government is prioritising age verification and restriction of children’s access to pornographic content online.

How and when do children see porn?

Almost half of children surveyed (47%) had never seen any online pornography.

This was clearly split by age. At 11, most children had not seen online pornography (72%) but by 15, a majority had (65%).

28% of children who had seen pornography had come across it accidentally, compared to 19% who searched for it deliberately.

The gender divide

The boys who responded to the survey were more likely to have seen online pornography than girls. Their reactions were also different.

Boys were more likely to describe pornographic content as ‘amusing,’  ‘arousing’ or ‘exciting,’ with girls more likely to call it ‘shocking.’

Overall about half of young people saw pornography as unrealistic, but girls were more likely to feel this way than boys. Some girls also worried that porn might change what their male partners expected from them:

‘It can make a boy not look for love just look for sex and it can pressure us girls to act and look and behave in a certain way before we might be ready for it’ (age 13)

Sexting reality check

The report found that 3% of young people said they had ever taken a fully naked picture, while 13% had taken a topless picture (although it should be noted that this was more common among boys than girls). Just over half had shared the image with someone else, either physically or electronically. While this is still cause for concern, it’s encouraging to see the number who are taking naked or semi-naked images is small.

Young people don’t share adults’ definition of sexting, which often refers to sharing sexual images. The young people surveyed see sexting as ‘writing and sharing explicit messages.’

‘Talking about sex by text’ (female, age 12)

‘Texting someone dirty things’ (male, age 14)

This, along with respondents’ worrying lack of knowledge about how to get intimate images taken down if they are posted online, raises questions about whether we’re doing a good enough job talking about sexting to young people.  

Some reporting on this research has focused on the idea that children are becoming ‘desensitised’ to pornography, as some say they were less shocked or confused on repeat viewings. But as the researchers note, this could simply be due to ‘growing sexual maturation’ as they get older.

42% of 12- to 16-year-olds said pornography had given them ideas about types of sex to try out, which could be cause for concern – but it’s hard to say without knowing what exactly they saw and wanted to try. It’s also unclear how (if at all) these ideas influenced their actual sexual behaviour.

Young people’s exposure to sexual content online is a sensitive topic, and there are some worrying figures in this report. Still, there’s also some cause for optimism.

Most children surveyed think online pornography doesn’t do a good job of modelling consent or safe sex. They want better sex education, including on the effects of pornography. The report also suggests that good sex education and PSHE could mitigate some potential issues associated with exposure to sexual content online.

Young people said they wanted to learn about sex in ‘safe, private and credible’ ways – that’s got to be good news.

Vicki Shotbolt, CEO of Parent Zone, said ‘if parents and teachers aren't talking to children about pornography, the internet is. These findings highlight just how important it is to make sure young people get sensible guidance about sex and relationships from the adults they trust. We need to do whatever we can to ensure that children don't have to grow up surrounded by porn, but we also have to get real and start talking to them honestly about sex.’  


You can read and download the full report here


Image: Jhaymesisviphotography CC BY