How online pornography impacts children

Learn about online pornography to keep kids safe

Get insight into the impact of online pornography, what the law says and steps that are being taken 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 things to know about online pornography

How do children access online porn?

Children can stumble across online porn through pop-ups or content shared on social media. They might come across it on live streaming sites or spaces that actively offer this content for free.

While many sites producing or hosting adult content include warnings or disclaimers about adult content, most don’t currently verify users’ ages or identities. This unfortunately makes it quite easy for children to access online pornography.

At what age do children first see porn online?

The Children’s Commissioner found that 10% of children had seen pornography by age 9 and 27% by age 11. Furthermore, the 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 people might seek online porn. One of the most common reasons 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. You can review their browser history for unrecognised sites or, if they purchased access, unexplained charges via whichever form of purchase they can use.

Some children might feel confused or worried about content they have accessed. As such, you might notice some behavioural changes towards their time online. It’s important to have regular conversations about their time online to help them feel comfortable coming to you when they experience these impacts.

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.

While many sites will outline age requirements in their Terms and Conditions or similar documents, most sites will not have robust age verification processes in place. This is something that might change with the Online Safety Act over the next few years.

However, some children and young people might still come across explicit content on social media. Age filters, parental controls and other safety settings can help prevent this. Moreover, as the Online Safety Act becomes established, social media platforms will need stricter measures in place to either limit access to children or make the space less harmful for children.

In some cases, children might also receive explicit content from other children who accessed it. This is a form of child-on-child abuse that can have negative impacts on children’s wellbeing.

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 negatively impact children in various ways.

Promotion of unhealthy relationships

There’s strong evidence that viewing adult material under the age of eighteen may distort children’s 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. Moreover, children and young people are seeing these acts as an expected part of a relationship. As such, they believe that if they don’t want to participate in those acts, there must be something wrong with them instead of identifying those acts as abusive.

The majority of online pornography also tends to demoralise women, which can play into misogynistic ideas among young men.

Early sexualised behaviour

Viewing adult material can affect children’s development, which can lead them to show signs of early sexualised behaviour. The age of first exposure and frequency of exposure closely link to the likelihood of a young person viewing violent content online. Frequent users of pornography are also more likely to have real-life experiences of aggressive or degrading sex acts.

Impacts on mental health

For boys, viewing this material may shape their attitudes about masculinity and sexuality, as well as their body image. Girls might 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 of exposure to online porn?

It’s always best to ask your child about their online experiences to create an open dialogue around issues such as online pornography. However, they might not always feel comfortable sharing everything with you. So, here are some potential signs that your child has accessed online pornography.

  • Premature sexual activity; increased interest in sexuality and the use of sexual language
  • Unexplained charges on your or their bank cards
  • Screen-switching as soon as you come near the computer
  • Inappropriate and explicit pop-ups suddenly appearing on your computer
  • Changes in behaviour – perhaps becoming much more defensive, aggressive or secretive
  • Search terms or visited sites in their browser history that you feel are inappropriate
  • Changed 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 introduces age assurance and age verification to ensure that children cannot access services not designed for them. This includes pornography sites and ensuring social media platforms have checks to make sure users are 18 or over before they can access pornographic material on those platforms.

Social media sites will also have to put measures in place to remove pornographic or adult material that goes against Terms of Service.

What is an indecent image of a child?

Indecent images are those depicting people in pornographic or otherwise explicit ways. This could include self-generated images or those taken by others. Any indecent images of children are illegal, and looking at indecent images of under-18s is illegal irrespective of how old they look.

If you or your child comes across indecent images or child sexual abuse material (CSAM), you should report it to the Internet Watch Foundation. The UK strictly prohibits taking, making, circulating and possessing with a view to distribution of any indecent image or material of a child. Such offences carry a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.

What is revenge porn?

Revenge porn 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 a crime to carry out and carries a sentence to up to 2 years in prison.

Sextortion is a common type of revenge porn and is the most widely reported to the Revenge Porn Helpline. It is when a person threatens to share a sexual image of a person unless a ‘ransom’ is paid — which can be financial as well as an action (such as sending more images).

What is extreme pornography?

Extreme pornography 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.

Other types of pornography that are illegal include acts that could result in serious injury as well as degrading pornography, violent pornography featuring rape and abuse, and anything that involves those under the age of 18.

What is Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE)?

Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) is compulsory in all schools in England, including academies and free schools.

Primary schools focus on topics around healthy and respectful relationships with a focus on family and friendships. This includes relationships in online spaces.

Secondary schools focus on topics around health with emphasis on drugs and alcohol. It also introduces themes around intimate relationships and sex as well as how to have sexual relationships that are positive and healthy. However, research shows that some areas of RSHE are lacking.

How might RSHE help my child?

Some parts of Relationships, Sex and Health Education are compulsory; these are part of the National Curriculum for Science. However, you can withdraw your child from other parts.

All schools must have a written policy on sex education, which they must make available to parents for free.

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, RSHE also addresses their needs specifically. Furthermore, children will learn about LGBT-specific content in an age-appropriate way.

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