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Exposure to pornography

One of the biggest concerns voiced by parents of young Internet users is the easy access to pornography that the Internet provides. There are millions of porn sites online, making hardcore sexual images that were once very difficult to obtain, now just a click away. And although many pornographic sites demand credit cards for full access, there are lots of free sites and “sneak peeks” available online.

Trying to control porn in a global medium like the Internet is difficult at best. Most Internet pornography, while offensive and distasteful to many users, is not illegal. As well, countries have different cultural standards and legislation regarding sexual material and content that is banned in one jurisdiction may be easily accessible on servers in another.

Our own research shows that the older the kids, the more likely they are to pay purposeful visits to pornography sites (the figures almost triple between Grade 7 and Grade 11 for boys).

To contextualize pornography, we have to recognize that today’s children and youth live in a highly sexualized media culture where the lines between pornography and popular entertainment have become increasingly blurred.

Young people are often left to their own devices to choose what is and isn’t right for them. This is especially true online: kids say that on the Internet, they are exposed to material all the time that they must choose to reject. It isn’t as if they have to “sneak a peek” at a rare find of pornography – rather, they’re constantly having to fend off material that they want to avoid.

As a result, kids say that efforts should be made to teach them – and particularly young children – decision-making skills that will help them make good choices and avoid inappropriate material online. This is where parents play an important role.

Teens are more prolific and diverse Internet users than younger kids – and they are less likely to be supervised – which means they have more opportunities to encounter this sort of content through their online activities. Adolescents are also naturally curious about sexuality and the Internet provides a convenient and private way to get answers to their questions.

Teen boys are the largest consumers of online pornography. According to a 2007 Alberta study, 90 per cent of teen boys and 70 per cent of teen girls say they have seen sexually explicit content on the Internet at least once. One-third of the boys say they have watched pornographic films “too many times to count”.

Impact on kids

We know that young people are accessing explicit content online. We know less about how this exposure is impacting their attitudes and behaviours.

If kids are finding good and accurate information about sexual health or healthy relationships that’s a positive thing, but if the bulk of their exposure is to pornography, then they may be receiving distorted – or even violent and deviant – messages about relationships and sexual behaviour.

Numerous concerns relating to young people’s exposure to explicit sexual depictions have been raised by health professionals and others. These include becoming sexually active at earlier ages, experiencing increased violence or abuse in sexual relations, increased acceptance of sexual stereotypes and increased obsession with body image.

These are legitimate concerns, but they do not necessarily apply to all youth. What is emerging in the research is that some young people are more vulnerable than others for a variety of reasons that may include interpersonal victimization, mental health issues, and patterns of risk-taking behaviour.

However, there is no consensus among researchers about the impact of pornography on viewers; a Université de Québec à Montréal study on young adults reported that they adapt the content to match their personal vision on sexuality and not the contrary –for instance they will fast forward the scenes they find shocking or disgusting. 

Tips for parents

"We’re surrounded by porn wherever we go. It’s everywhere, in the movies we watch, the magazines we read, the music videos we see."
13-year-old boy, Toronto, Ontario.

(Source: Young Canadians in a Wired World, Focus Groups, MediaSmarts, 2003)

Given the high likelihood that youth are going to come across or seek out online pornography at one point or another, not to mention the many messages they receive about sex through other media, it is important that parents take an active role in their kids’ Internet use and start talking to them about healthy relationships and sexuality at early ages to help them contextualize and make decisions about what they’re seeing online.

Regardless of the evidence that exists concerning the effect of pornography on kids, as parents we know we don't want our children accidentally stumbling across it when they are young or developing an appetite for it during their teen years.

Young children

Minimize the risks:

  • Set up the computer in a busy area of your home – never in a child’s bedroom.
  • Use kid-friendly search engines and Web browsers or adult search engines that provide filtering options like Google. Test the different search engines to see which ones give the best results.
  • Talk to librarians or teachers and create a directory of good kids’ sites by bookmarking them on your computer. But be aware that porn distributors often purchase expired domain names, including those of kids’ sites.
  • Block pop-ups, which are commonly used by pornographic sites.
  • Investigate filtering technology. There are server-based filtering options offered through your ISP as well as computer-based filtering software that you can administer yourself. These technologies can be helpful – but keep in mind that they're not foolproof and are no substitutes for parental supervision.

Minimize the impact:

  • Talk to your kids about sex from a very early age. They are being exposed to sexual images in various media so you need to establish an open and honest dialogue with them so they will come to you with their questions.
  • In broader terms, exercise their critical thinking skills with regard to sexual stereotypes. Point out how boys and girls are depicted on toy packages, in clothing catalogues, in advertisements or in movies. Discuss how these stereotypes differ from their own reality.
  • If they stumble across pornography, remain calm. In many cases these sites pop up accidentally and are difficult to leave, which can be very upsetting for kids. Don't overreact – you want your kids to feel comfortable turning to you for help and advice when these incidents happen.

Tweens and teens

It is natural for adolescents to be curious about sexuality. It is also natural for them to be more inclined to do their own research online rather than asking their parents awkward and embarrassing questions. (Only one-third of teens say their parents are ready to talk with them about sex.) The problem with pornography is that it is an unhealthy response to a healthy concern.

After a certain age, parental filters are no longer a viable – or desirable – solution, as filters indiscriminately block both pornographic and good sites on sexuality. The best approach for parents of tweens and teens is an ongoing dialogue that acknowledges their interest in relationships and sex as normal, and helps them develop the critical thinking skills they need to make good online decisions.

  • Discuss the sexual messages in various media. Help your kids understand the harmful effects of images that degrade and exploit women or girls, or that pressure boys to conform to a male-gendered model centred on sexual attractiveness and prowess.
  • Talk to your kids openly about sexuality and pornography. Direct them to good-quality Web sites that provide information for young people on sexuality and health. If the only information your kids are receiving about sexuality is from porn sites, you have a problem. Explore with them the differences between normal, healthy sexual expression and the exploitive and deviant activity that is so prevalent online.
  • Establish clear rules about visiting pornographic sites.
  • If you have concerns about your kids’ online activities, talk with them. You can also monitor where they are going on the Internet by looking at the history, cookie and cache files on your computer. However, keep in mind that computer-savvy kids know how to erase their Internet tracks. Open, honest communication is always preferable to invading their privacy.
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