How online pornography impacts children

Discover stats and facts about how adult content can impact children

Get insight into the impact of online pornography, what the law says and steps that are being introduced to protect young children from seeing adult content.

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As a result of their curiosity, or just by accident, children can stumble across Pornography online and be exposed to confusing and unrealistic images of sex and relationships. But there are steps you can take to limit their exposure.

Look out for changes in their behavior to see if they have been viewing pornography online. Signs of premature sexual activity increased interest in sexuality and the use of sexual language.

Other signs include; unexplained charges on bank cards, explicit pop-ups on browsers and deleting browsing history.

4 quick questions about online pornography

How easy is online porn to access?

Children can stumble across online porn through indiscriminate pop-ups ( these may appear if they have downloaded ‘free’ software), through content shared on social media, live streaming or sites that actively offer this content for free.

What is the average age that children are exposed to adult content?

The Children’s Commissioner found that average age at which children first see pornography is 13. They also found that girls and boys are just as likely as one another to see pornography at this age.

Why would my child search for online porn?

There are many reasons that children and young adults might seek online porn, The most common is simply out of curiosity – a friend may have talked to them about something and they are looking to find out for themselves

What are the signs that my child has seen online porn?

There are a few signs that your child might have accessed explicit material. Look out for unexplained charges to to your bank account, as well as unrecognised sites in your browser history.

How children are at risk of being exposed to online porn

Children can stumble across online porn through content shared on social media, live streaming or sites that actively offer this content for free.

Although porn is readily available online, under the 2019 guidance, users are required to log in via an age verification system. They will need to provide ID in the form of a credit card, driver’s licence or via a designated card which can be purchased at certain shops – before they access adult content. This will mean that you’ll have to prove that you are 18 or over to access any porn site.

However, explicit material can still be found for free through social media with Twitter (X), being the site that children are most likely to stumble across adult content. As well as this children can be sent explicit images and videos from friends.

Facts and stats about online pornography

The NSPCC found that 53% of boys believed that the pornography they had seen was realistic compared to 39% of girls

According to The NSPCC, over 9  in 10 children have been exposed to porn online by the age of 14

79% of young people encounter violent pornography before the age of 18. Additionally, a report by the Children’s Commissioner found that frequent users of pornography are more likely to engage in physically aggressive sex acts.

We discovered a third of children who’ve seen online porn were accidentally exposed to it, while a quarter were sent it by a friend.

How does viewing online porn harm your child?

The impact of viewing online pornography can be dangerous for a number of reasons.

Can lead to unhealthy relationships

There’s strong evidence that viewing adult material under the age of eighteen may distort their understanding and expectation of sex and relationships. Frontline workers at Barnardo’s say that children are participating in acts they have seen in pornographic videos, despite feeling uncomfortable and scared. Children and young people are seeing these acts are an expected part of a relationship and believe that if they feel otherwise there must be something wrong with them, rather than identifying abuse.

Can lead to early sexualised behaviour

There is evidence that viewing adult material can affect children’s development especially if they are younger when they first view it, which can lead them to show signs of early sexualised behaviour. The age of first exposure and frequency of exposure were shown to be closely linked to the likelihood of a young person viewing violent content online. Frequent users of pornography were also more likely to have real-life experience of an aggressive or degrading sex acts.

Can impact mental health

For boys, viewing this material may shape their attitudes about masculinity and sexuality, as well as their body image. While girls can feel pressure to live up to the expectations of online porn. This, in turn, can spark feelings of anxiety or depression.

What are the signs that my child has been exposed to online porn?

While it’s always best to ask your child and create an open dialogue around online pornography, this is sometimes not possible. Some or all of the following signs may suggest your child could have been viewing pornography:

  • Signs of premature sexual activity, increased interest in sexuality and the use of sexual language
  • Unexplained charges on your or their bank cards
  • They switch screens as soon as you come near the computer
  • Inappropriate and explicit pop-ups start to appear on your computer
  • Changes in behaviour – perhaps becoming much more defensive, aggressive or secretive
  • Your child’s browser history may reveal search terms used or sites visited that you feel are inappropriate.
  • Maybe starting to explore their sexuality  and have changing attitudes towards women and girls or members of the same sex in the context of sexual relationships

What does the law say about online porn?

What is the Online Safety Act?

The Online Safety Act is a new law that is introducing age assurance and age verification to ensure that children cannot access services not designed for them. This includes pornography sites and social media companies having to check you are 18 or over before you can access pornographic material, and social media sites having to prevent children accessing them before the minimum age (often 13 years old)

What is an indecent image of a child?

Looking at indecent images of under 18s is illegal irrespective of how old they look. As these images are real young people it causes them harm and any image found should be reported to the International Watch Foundation. The UK has a strict prohibition on the taking, making, circulation and possession with a view to distribution of any indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child and such offences carry a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.

What is revenge porn?

This is when an explicit or sexual image or video of a person is shared without their consent. It normally takes place when there is a relationship break down and ex-partner is seeking revenge. It is now a crime to carry out and carries a sentence to up to two years in prison.

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What is extreme pornography?

This is anything that features someone threatening a person’s life, an act that results in serious injury, bestiality or necrophilia. It is illegal to possess these images or videos and carries a sentence of between 2 -3 years and an unlimited fine.

Types of pornography that are illegal – even for an adult to have include acts that threaten a person’s life. These could be acts that could result in serious injury, degrading pornography, violent pornography (i.e. rape and abuse) and anything that involves those under the age of 18.

What will my child learn in relationships, sex and health education (RSHE)?

Sex and relationship education is now compulsory in all schools in England, including academies and free schools. Primary school focus on a programme tailored to the age and maturity of children which includes learning about puberty before they experience it,  how babies are born, friendships, bullying, and self-esteem.

In secondary schools, SRE (sex & relationship education) lessons teach children about healthy relationships and following new guidance will also cover specific issues such as pornography, sexting, harassment, and consent.

BBC News report explains changes to how sex and relationships education is taught in schools

How will RSHE help my child?

Some parts of sex and relationship education are compulsory – these are part of the national curriculum for science.

Under the terms of the new guidance, you’ll be able to withdraw your child from some or all sex education. All schools must have a written policy on sex education, which they must make available to parents for free.

However, children that do access RSHE will have:

  • An increased knowledge of sexual risks such as STIs (sexually transmitted diseases) and teenage pregnancy
  • Awareness of issues around sexual abuse and partner violence
  • Understanding of healthy relationships
  • Improved awareness of risks around sharing nude photos and the negative influences of pornography on attitudes towards relationships, sex, and consent
  • If your child is SEND, it will also address their needs specifically
  • Children will also learn about LGBT-specific content in an age-appropriate way
Resource document

Read more about proposed changes to Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) from PSHE Association

Read more