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Pornography in their pockets – young kids’ access to pornography

WARNING- Content is this blog post may distress some readers. It addresses the issue of pornography.

 

I used to be relieved that I didn’t have to discuss the topic of ‘pornography’ in the parent seminars that I deliver. It’s a topic that many of us feel uncomfortable discussing at all. Let alone having to talk to other adults about it, especially when you’ve never met them before. Eeek!

You see, I talk to parents, educators and health professionals working with children aged 0-12 years so pornography wasn’t a topic that was on my radar.

Sure, parents of older children were needing to address this issue, but it wasn’t something that parents with younger children had to consider. I was off the hook.

Until now.

As I travel throughout the country speaking to parents, educators and health professionals, I’m hearing more and more distressing stories of young children accessing pornography. Children as young as 7 years of age are being exposed to pornography (sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally).

I’ve heard an awful story of an 8-year-old child being shown violent pornographic videos at school by a group of 10-year-old boys on their iPad in their lunch break (and yes, there was strict Internet filtering software at the school, but they simply used their 4G connection to bypass the filters).

I’ve heard sad stories of young children (we’re talking 10 years and younger) performing sex acts with other children because they’re seeing pornography and they think it’s ‘normal’.

I’ve heard a case about appalling genital injuries sustained by an 8-year-old girl who engaged in dangerous sex acts with her brother because they’d stumbled on pornographic content and decided to copy what they’d seen.

This is awful. This upsets us. This is something I really wish that I didn’t have to write about…truly.

However, this is the sad reality we’re facing. Pretending that this is not a problem, or that this won’t impact our children is both dangerous and naïve.

You see, it’s no longer a matter of if, but when your child will access pornography.

When are kids accessing pornography?

The research in this area is not clear. Gaining ethics approval to conduct studies on young children’s pornography habits and exposure is almost impossible. Therefore, it’s really difficult for researchers to accurately gauge exactly when kids are accessing pornography and how frequently they’re doing so.

Some research has suggested that children as young as 8 are seeing pornography and other studies suggest it’s around age 11. According to research conducted by Sydney University psychologists Sitharthan and Sitharthan, children are starting to view pornography between 11 and 13 years of age[1].Moreover, a 2012 publication from the St. James Ethics Centre reported the worrying trend that young children are intentionally accessing porn, sometimes as young as eleven years of age[2].

However, as I present at schools, community organisations and healthcare groups throughout Australia I’m anecdotally hearing more and more reports of young children (often under 10 years accessing pornography).

This upsets me terribly. I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish you didn’t need to read what I’m about to share below, but you do. I implore you to read on.

Whether we love technology or loathe it, it’s here to stay so we have to find healthy and helpful ways to use it and mitigate potential harmful effects.

And kids’ access to pornography is one of the biggest problems that we must address. We must find ways to mitigate these risks.

We can’t bury our head in the sand and hope that this won’t impact our kids. It will. Remember, it’s simply a matter of when.

I know that this is confronting to hear. Childhood should be a precious time that’s preserved and not impacted by our kids seeing distressing videos of adult content. That’s sadly, no longer their reality.

Even if you install Internet filtering software (which you must, especially with children under 13 years of age) and even if you carefully monitor your child’s screen-time (which I also implore you to do) it’s highly likely that your child will still encounter pornographic content when they’re young.

Kids are taking screenshots and videos of pornography and sharing it with their peers at school in the playground. They’re accessing it on the school bus. They’re sharing it via their phones.

Pornography is not a new issue

Pornography isn’t a new phenomenon. In years gone by, children might have meandered into the back section of the newsagents and snuck a quick peek at a Playboy magazine, or find a nudie calendar tucked away in Dad’s shed.

But these were static images. They didn’t have as much of an arousal effect that dynamic videos have on the brain. Research with male adults shows that the striatum (which is a critical component in the reward system of the brain) is active when people see sexual stimulus, particularly if it’s dynamic (as pornographic videos obviously are).

Today, the volume of pornographic material (some estimates suggest that 30% of all web traffic involves pornography) has increased and kids now have easy access to pornography given the ubiquity of digital devices, especially handheld devices.

Our kids really now do have “porn in their pocket” and often when we’re not around.

This increased ease of access to pornography obviously also increases kids’ risk of accidental exposure to pornography. The more time you’re on Internet-enabled devices, the greater the risk that you may encounter pornography.

Impact of pornography on our kids

Pornography exposure, especially for young, pre-adolescent children, can have catastrophic and life-long impacts on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing. The research is confirming that there are very really harms associated with pornography exposure[1].

The basic problem is that our kids can’t un-see something. Once they’ve seen pornography (or violence, or scary content) the images are indelibly sketched on their brain.

As a child once explained to their parent, they wanted to rub the images out of their eyeballs. They’d accidentally stumbled on pornography after doing a rather benign Google search for a school project.  Sadly, once it’s been seen, it can’t be ‘unseen’.

//Disturbing or upsetting

A distraught father told me that his son (who was 9 years of age at the time) hysterically wept at night for months on end after one of his older siblings showed him a pornographic film at home (whilst his father was in another room). Exposure to pornography can be disturbing or upsetting for our young children because they lack the emotional resilience to process such information. They’re simply too young to understand.

// Shaping norms about sexual experiences

Exposure to pornographic content means that children are often first encountering sexual content that is often violent, non-consensual, degrading towards women and eroticises violence. This is not the type of sex education we want for our kids.

// Kids are being desensitised to violence

There are concerns that exposure to pornography by young children may normalise violence towards women. Repeated viewing to violent, pornographic content may desensitise kids to violence[1]. More research in this area is warranted.

Research with adult males has shown less activation in the striatum, the more pornography participants consumed. It appears that, over time, prolonged exposure to pornography can develop a level of tolerance in viewers. They seek out more violent or dangerous or taboo content (and this is the very reason why research is showing that pornographic producers are making more physically violent content in recent years). Viewers are needing more extreme and violent content to elicit the same pleasurable feelings. As a result, producers of pornography are now making sexual content that is more aggressive and violent in an attempt to continually arouse viewers.

// Kids are engaging in dangerous and unsafe sexual practices

Children and adolescents are emulating sexual acts that they’ve seen in pornographic films and are more frequently engaging in unsafe sexual practices such as anal to oral sex and/or unprotected sex according to health professionals.

There are also anecdotal reports that child-to-child sex acts are increasing. Impressionable children are accessing pornography (accidentally or intentionally) and are then mirroring what they see. Sometimes this is in a consensual act and other times it is not.

There have also been reports that young children are using implements for penetration and coercing other children into performing sexual acts.

There’s also been an increase in youth-produced child pornography, according to a study conducted by Bobkowski, Brown and Neffa in 2012.[1] Young children under 15 years are creating and curating explicit pornographic material using popular online sites and social media. Some tweens are also engaging in self-generated pornography too, taking nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves engaging in erotic or sexual activities and electronically sharing these on social media and instant messaging sites like Instagram and Kik. This is a self-perpetuating cycle as children get social validation when they share such content.

 What can parents do?

// Use an Internet filtering tool like the Family Zone to prevent your child from accessing inappropriate content (either intentionally or accidentally). The benefit of this filtering software is that it also allows parents to establish screen-time limits. I’m a proud ambassador of the Family Zone as it’s a product that I personally use at home to keep my kids safe.

//  Set up Safe search when using Google, or use kid-friendly search engines such as Google Safe Search for KidsGoGooligansKidzSearchKidsClickKidRex and Swiggle.

// Understand that kids are naturally curious about sex and will seek out information about sex online. So provide them with age-appropriate and quality sex education that explores both the mechanics of sex and the relationship aspect as well. Encourage them to ask questions from you (even if it embarrasses you or makes you feel uncomfortable) because we don’t want them to think that discussing sex is taboo (this will only encourage more secretive activity).

// Be alert and engaged. Have ongoing and incidental conversations about what kids are doing online. You want to build relationships with your child so that if they do encounter unsavoury content, that they feel safe enough to come and talk to you about it.

// Co-view with your child, where possible. Show an avid interest in what they’re doing online.

// Keep bedrooms as tech-free zones. I’ve heard awful stories of young children accessing pornography in the middle of the night when they should be sleeping.

If you’ve read this far, I want to commend you.  I know, as a mum, that this is a personally confronting and sad topic. But we can’t ignore this problem.

We need to collaborate, as parents, educators and health professionals and have open and ongoing conversations about our kids’ access to pornography. This is the only way that we can drive this underground problem away.

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In the comments below, I’d love to know are you worried about your child’s access to pornography? What step/s have you taken to prevent your child from accessing it?

__________________________

[1] Sitharthan G & Sitharthan T 2011, ‘Don’t get worked up: you can beat your porn addiction … if you want to’, The Conversation.

[1] Arliss J 2012, ‘Pornography and education’, Living Ethics: Newsletter of the St. James Ethics Centre, Issue 88, pp 12–13.

[1] Flood, M. (2009). The harms of pornography exposure among children and young people. Child Abuse Review, 18(6), 384-400.

McKee, A. (2010). Does pornography harm young people? Journal of Communication, 37(1), 17-36.

Marriner, C. (2016). The damage pornography did to a six-year-old child. The Age, February 7, 2016. Retrieved from <http://www.theage.com.au/national/the-damage-pornography-did-to-a-sixyearold-child-20160205-gmmuv2.html>

[1] Linz, D., Donnerstein, E., & Penrod, S. (1987). The findings and recommendations of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography: Do the psychological” facts” fit the political fury? American Psychologist42(10), 946.

Sampson, E. (2015). APS highlights concerns on the harmful impacts of pornography. InPsych: The Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society Ltd, 37(2), 18-19. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2015/april/sampson/


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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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Comments

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write such valuable information. I don’t have a concern at the moment for my Kindy son, as we have very strict rules about using our tablet. My concern is that if he were exposed to pornography, then it would be from an older friend/cousin whose parents have less restrictions.

    • My pleasure Magdalene. Unfortunately, this is the sad reality we face. We really do rely on other parents to implement and enforce similar restrictions to us, to reduce the chances that they’ll see something. And that, sometimes, doesn’t happen.

  2. I feel very passionate and concerned about this topic. I have a 9, 11 and 13 year olds and through chats with them I know they been exposed and also they have friends who are much too young and who are actively seeking. Monitoring them consistently is impossible and while I set limits they were always trying to get around them. So I have Family Zone and it is brilliant. It gives me more control then I could imagine …. having some sort of protection is ESSENTIAL for the safety of our children.

    • Brigett, it’s a universal concern for many parents, but unfortunately not all parents are aware their children are accessing it. I’m so pleased that you love the Family Zone- it’s great reassurance.

  3. I’m a mother of two daughters under 7 and I too feel very concerned about this topic and compelled to investigate, not just how to protect our children or prepare them for it but, how to CHANGE the situation. I don’t read or watch news other than what comes into my FB news feed so are a little out of touch with current and past debates regarding pornography. I’d be interested to know, I’m sure it’s been discussed previously, what is the possibility of banning internet pornography access to an entire Nation/country? Even if it did still leak in to some extent, which it would, the act of banning it would reduce access significantly and also send a message that it’s not normal or acceptable.

    • Hi Melissa,

      I share your concerns. Some countries, like Iceland, have very strict bans and surveillance to prevent the sale and distribution of pornography. I’m not sure if prohibition, at a national level, would work, as these types of bans often result in criminals to engineer sub-markets to target those people who want to consume the product. Whilst I would love it if we could prevent our kids from accessing it, I’m not sure Australia (or many other Western countries) will ever enforce bans. I think, we need to protect our kids online by using Internet-filtering software at school (and home), we need to talk to our kids about their online behaviours and sadly we need to have discussions about how inaccurate a depiction pornography is in terms of a loving relationship. We don’t want our kids “normalising” pornographic acts.

  4. My 6 year old son had been intentionally looking up very crude porn videos such as babies having sex with men, adults sexing alions, and much worse. I was under the impression that his father had put parental control settings on so that he wouldn’t be able to access this type of material. To make matters worse I didn’t find out about these crude searches until his 4 year old step brother told his mother that my 6 year old had shown them to him. The 4 year old is so mentally scarred that the school has reported him saying that he wants to kill himself. What can I do to fix this issue? As a mom I am completely heart broken and I’ve tried talking to my six year old about it but he refuses instead he covers his head and cries. Please help me any advice would be truly appreciated.

    • Elise, I can imagine how upsetting distressing this must be. I would do two things as a matter of urgency- 1. seek professional medical/psychological help for your son and step-son. This is a serious issue and requires urgent medical attention. 2. You must install Internet-filtering software on all digital devices to prevent your child from accessing this illicit material. I recommend the Family Zone- https://www.familyzone.com/drkristygoodwin

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