Most children have seen pornography online

Many parents’ greatest fear concerning the Internet is that their children will encounter and be harmed by online pornography. These fears are well-grounded. Research conducted over the past decade has documented significant rates of exposure for both boys and girls. One team of researchers concluded that “exposure to online pornography might have reached a point where it can be characterized as normative among youth Internet users, especially teenage boys.”1

Australian researchers Michael Flood and Clive Hamilton report that, “It is fair to conclude that anyone who uses the Internet extensively has a high probability of coming across sex sites when searching for something else or being sent pornographic links or images via email.”

By age 18, most boys and girls have seen pornography online
The Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography reported in 1986 that the largest group of pornography users was boys ages 12-17. A study published in 1989 found that by the age of 15, 92 percent of boys had looked at or read Playboy. The average age of first exposure was estimated to be 11.2

In the past decade, most research has focused on the Internet’s role in pornography exposure among youth. A 2006 study of 563 college students found that 73 percent of respondents had seen online pornography before age 18. First exposure typically took place between ages 14 and 17. The researchers concluded that, “If participants in this study are typical of young people, exposure to pornography on the Internet can be described as a normative experience.”3

Exposure to Internet pornography4

Boys Girls
Yes, before 18 93.2% 62.1%
Yes, after 18 4.2 20.6
Never 2.6 17.3

Among those exposed, age at first exposure5

Boys Girls
8 0.6% 0.0%
9 0.6 0.0
10 0.6 0.5
11 1.7 1.0
12 10.9 7.7
13 16.0 15.3
14 21.1 12.4
15 22.9 22.5
16 20.0 33.0
17 5.7 7.7

(numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

Mean age at first exposure

  • Boys – 14.3
  • Girls – 14.8

The research above doesn’t account for offline pornography exposure. A study conducted in 1999 found that among young regular Internet users ages 10-17, just as many youth had intentionally sought offline pornography as online pornography.6

Researchers are calling online pornography exposure a “normative experience” for both boys and girls. The question for parents, academics, medical and mental health professionals, and elected leaders is whether we are willing to let high rates of pornography exposure continue as the “norm” for future generations.

In his study of pornography use and acceptance among teens in Australia, researcher Michael Flood found the following:

“When asked whether watching X-rated videos is widespread among boys of their age, five out of six boys (84 percent) and the same percentage of girls said that it is. …The fact that most 16- to 17-year-old boys and girls believe that watching X-rated videos is widespread among boys suggests that watching these videos is considered to be normal or at least common behaviour among boys. The normalising of this activity may give pornography consumption a high degree of social tolerance and acceptability within youth culture” (italics added).7

The research indicates that millions of American children are being exposed to pornography every year. Our culture’s lazy tolerance of pornography, even that which clearly violates the law, is translating into acceptability in youth culture. Sadly, pornographic sexuality will be the “norm” for many children, twisting their perceptions of sexuality, gender and relationships in ways that will negatively impact future generations. Yet, the cause is not hopeless. We can begin to turn the culture around.

1 Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, David Finkelhor, “Unwanted and Wanted Exposure to Online Pornography in a National Sample of Youth Internet Users,” PEDIATRICS, Volume 119, Number 2, February 2007, p. 251, (accessed June 2, 2010).
2 J Bryant, D. Brown, “Use of pornography,” Pornography: research advances and policy considerations, Hillsdale (NJ): Erdbaum; 1989, p. 25-55.
3 Chiara Sabina, Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, “The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. December 2008, 11(6): 691-693.
4 Sabina, Wolak, Finkelhor, “The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. December 2008.
5 Sabina, Wolak, Finkelhor, “The Nature and Dynamics of Internet Pornography Exposure for Youth,” CyberPsychology & Behavior. December 2008.
6 Michele L. Ybarra and KimberlyJ. Mitchell, “Exposure to Internet Pornography among Children and Adolescents: A National Study,” CyberPsychology & Behavior, Volume 8, Number 5, 2005, pp. 473-486.
7 Michael Flood, Clive Hamilton, “Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects,” The Australia Institute, Discussion Paper Number 52, February 2003.

Copyright © 2013, Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved. Used with permission.