Pornography and teens: Kids are curious and searching online

A recent survey and report by Common Sense Media on teens and pornography warns: "Most teens have their own smartphone, giving them nearly constant access to a variety of websites and platforms with pornographic content."

A recent survey and report by Common Sense Media on teens and pornography warns: "Most teens have their own smartphone, giving them nearly constant access to a variety of websites and platforms with pornographic content."

My older children’s initial foray into the wilds of the internet came via our first family computer. A shared device the size of a microwave oven, it was too bulky to be moved and sat in the middle of the house. So, my husband and I easily spotted a search for “naked pictures of Paris Hilton” during an eighth grade sleepover.

A decade later, that attempt seemed almost quaint compared to what my younger children and their classmates encountered on the internet, including an email circulated to dozens of middle school students containing a video of graphic sex. By that point, my children had their own laptops, and it was only by chance that I happened to see the email.

When I was growing up, classmates pilfered Playboy magazines from their dads or stole peeks of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition at the drugstore. My Catholic school never included “The Catcher in the Rye” on its summer reading lists due to its teenage angst over sex; most of us read it anyway.

Across Georgia today, parents storm school board meetings to read aloud from what they deem pornographic passages in books in school libraries. Yet, children now can access sexual photos and videos via the phones in their back pockets.

And they are looking.

A recent survey and report by Common Sense Media found three-quarters of teens have viewed pornography online by the age of 17 — and some have seen it by age 10 or even younger.

“The results of this research confirm a very important point: It’s time for us to talk about pornography. We need to consider conversations with teens about pornography the same way we think of conversations about sex, social media, drug and alcohol use, and more,” said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media in a statement.

Today, 88% of teens have or have access to a smartphone. It is not only simpler for them to access porn, it’s also easier to share it with friends without parents having any clue. Among the teens in the survey, more than half reported first seeing online pornography at age 13 or younger, including 15% who saw porn before they turned 11.

This is not an American phenomenon. In a 2017 study out of Australia, 44% of children aged 9-16 had encountered sexual images in the last month. A 2016 United Kingdom study found 53% of 11-16-year-olds had seen online pornography at least once, with the vast majority doing so before the age of 14.

According to the Common Sense survey, some exposure to porn occurs accidentally through surfing the web, a search engine result, an online ad or social media. But the survey found many teens seek out online pornography intentionally.

Studies suggest online porn has become a de facto source of sex education for kids now, providing the explicit information that is often missing from sanitized sex ed classes. Several large metro Atlanta districts including Gwinnett use a middle and high school abstinence-centered curriculum called “Choosing the Best.” (Gwinnett is considering a new program that will provide more comprehensive lessons about consent, contraceptives and gender and sexual identity.)

Some kids are choosing the internet to supplement their grasp of sex and sexuality. The Common Sense survey found that, while teens said they consume pornography for a wide variety of reasons, a desire to better understand their own sexual preferences topped the list of rationales.

Psychology professor Melissa L. Whitson of the University of New Haven said adults often direct children to look up questions about geography or history on the internet. So, we should not be surprised when children take their natural curiosity about sex to the internet as well.

While children’s curiosity around sex is normal, it can be a problem if they lack any other information about sex and healthy relations beyond the internet, said Whitson in a telephone interview.

Because some of what they see can be troubling.

The majority of teens who viewed porn reported seeing aggressive or violent scenes, including what appeared to be rape, choking, or someone in pain. Teens in the Common Sense survey also said they witnessed racial and ethnic stereotypes. Black students were especially likely to report seeing stereotypical portrayal of their identity in pornography made them feel “disgusted” (25%) or “self-conscious” (21%).

Parents should open the lines of communication around what kids may be seeing online, she said. Even with younger children, Whitson advised, “Parents can ask them if they ever come across people kissing. Their kids may tell them they haven’t seen any of that, but now the kids know it’s something they can come to their parents about.”