Families waiting to talk about pornography until their children are teenagers should move up that schedule, according to a new report.
The average that kids first reported being exposed to online porn was 12, according to a new Common Sense Media survey of more than 1,300 teens ages 13 to 17.
Fifteen percent first saw porn when they were 10 years old or younger, according to the report.
“Most parents probably think, ‘Well that’s not my kid.’ But the numbers are overwhelming, so it probably is your kid,” said Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media founder and CEO. “This is an incredibly important public health and sexual health issue that’s literally being buried by parents, by educators and by all of us.”
To Dr. Lisa Damour, the new data isn’t a surprise. “Teenagers are exposed to pornography far more often than many adults assume,” said Damour, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist specializing in the development of teenage girls.
Parents should understand that curiosity around sexuality is common for growing kids and assume that their child has probably seen something online they wish they hadn’t, said Dr. Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and founder of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools.
How they are finding it
Accessing pornography has become easier to do and easier to hide.
“Today’s teens have more options than previous generations, including generally unfettered access to pornographic websites, social media, and other outlets,” the report said. “Smartphones may also make it easier for children to share pornographic materials with their peers.”
While about 73% of the teens in the survey said they saw online pornography by the time they were 17, they reported different ways they came across it.
More than half reported seeing the content accidentally, according to the report. Sometimes that was through clicking a link they didn’t realize was porn, coming across a pornographic advertisement or being shown by a friend or classmate.
Of the teens who saw pornography accidentally, 18% reported that it was on social media – but no one platform stood out as the most common source, the report said.
Although both cisgender boys and cisgender girls reported having seen pornography at a similar rate, 52% of cisgender boys reported doing so on purpose while 36% of cisgender girls reported the same, the data showed. (Cisgender is defined as a person whose gender identity aligns with their sex at birth.)
They aren’t always viewing behind closed doors, either. About 41% of the respondents reported seeing online pornography during the school day, including 31% who said they viewed it while attending school in person, the report said.
Images of violence – not consent
The report also gave insight into what thoughts the teens were left with.
Most teens reported seeing violent or aggressive forms of pornography, including 52% who reported having seen pornography depicting what appears to be rape, choking or someone in pain, the report said. Only about 33% reported seeing content where someone asks for consent.
Although just over a quarter of the teens said they thought pornography gave an accurate depiction of sex, almost half said they got valuable information from the content they saw, according to the data.
Can I keep them from it?
With so much unmonitored time to access internet resources or stumble across pornography, what are families to do?
Start with a conversation, said Damour, author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable and Compassionate Adolescents.”
It probably should happen before they are teenagers and before they have a cellphone, she added.
If you don’t know where to start, Damour recommended something like: “I know that kids often end up seeing porn online. Here’s what I want you to know if that happens to you: The intimacy depicted in porn is rarely the loving, tender, mutual intimacy that characterizes a healthy love life. If you do end up seeing it, please know that I’m here to answer any questions you might have.”
Kids and teens are often unsettled by pornography, so she recommends offering them your support.
It may help to block pornography on the family router, but monitoring their internet use with apps that track their searches, emails and text may not be a surefire way to delay pornography viewing, Heitner said.
Most tech savvy teens can find ways around that or wait until they are around friends, she added.
“The best offense here is preparing them for a world where porn is highly accessible and may be giving kids misleading information about sex, consent and practices that they may assume are expected or ‘common’ because they see people in porn doing them,” Heitner said.