Online porn

Advice on how to talk to your child about the risks of online porn and sexually explicit material.

Children and young people are able to access porn online very easily. 

A new ‘age verification’ law is coming into force, which will require pornography sites to check the age of visitors to their site. This will make it much harder for young people to access online porn, but it won’t completely prevent it. Porn may still ‘pop-up’ on social media sites and some young people may find ways around the checks.

Whether by accident – website pop-ups and misleading links, or because they’re actively searching – it’s important for us to help young people understand the impact porn can have on them and their relationships.

As a parent, it’s important to understand the risks associated with watching porn at a young age so you can talk to your child about how to stay safe and what to do if they ever feel concerned or uncomfortable about something they’ve seen.

It’s normal for young people to be curious about sex and relationships. The internet gives them a way to access information and get answers to questions they may feel uncomfortable about asking you. We know that there are a number of other reasons young people may be accessing porn online.

82% of 11-18 year olds surveyed said they thought it was important to learn about the impact of pornography as part of relationships and sex education.

In July 2017, the NSPCC conducted a survey of over 500 young people (promoted through the Childline Facebook page). Of the 524 young people aged 11 – 18 who responded to the survey, 432 (82%) said it was ‘slightly’, ‘quite’ or ‘very’ important to teach about the impact of pornography as part of relationships and sex education in schools.

Why children and young people look for sexual content online


  • learn about sex and sexual identities
  • curiosity
  • for sexual arousal and pleasure
  • for "a laugh"
  • break the rules
  • to be disgusted
  • to "freak out" their friends
  • peer or relationship pressure 

 

How to talk to your child about porn

Talking to your child about online porn is something that you may find challenging but it's important to be open and honest.

Finding the right time to talk to your child about porn can be tricky but you know your child best and will know when it's the right time to have these conversations.

Things to talk about

Acknowledge that your child might feel embarrassed or worried about talking to you. Reassure them that it is ok to feel curious about sex and that they can always talk to you. Remember that they may have seen something online by accident or been pressured to look/watch by another person or group.

Explain that sex in porn is often different to how people have sex in real life. People are acting and putting on a performance so things are exaggerated and the lines between consent, pleasure and violence are often blurred. It's important for young people to know the difference. You may find it helpful to direct your child to Childline’s video about pornography myths.

Talking about healthy relationships can be a way of pointing out the differences between how actors and actresses in porn interact and how we do in our day-to-day lives.

It is important for your child to understand that relationships they see in porn are very different, often not realistic, compared to real relationships.

Talk to them about what makes a positive and healthy relationship.Ask them what they think makes a good relationship. You can prompt them by discussing respect, personal boundaries and consent. This conversation may vary depending on your child's age.

Healthy sexual behaviour in children and young people

Useful advice on what is normal sexual behaviour, warning signs that suggest there may be a problem, and how best to react.
What is healthy sexual behaviour?

Some young people worry that they watch too much pornography, and might feel like they can’t stop viewing it. This can make them feel guilty or ashamed, and they may want help to stop viewing a lot of pornography. You may find it helpful to direct them to the Childline page on addiction.

"I’ve been watching a lot of porn recently – it’s become a bit of an addiction. I think about sex all the time. Whenever I see a girl I fancy I think about how it would be to sleep with them and do the stuff I’ve seen in porn films. I can’t help it even though I know it’s inappropriate."
Boy, 12-15*

There is a growing body of research looking into the impact that porn has on the brain. Watching porn can become "a high" similar to the way addicts feel when they take drugs (Voon et al, 2014). Scientists are discovering that excessive porn use can have a negative impact on key parts of the brain (Kühn and Gallinat, 2014). For children and young people, these effects can be greater as their brains are still developing (Voon et al, 2014).

Sometimes children and young people feel pressured to watch porn. Explain to your child that whilst some people watch porn online, not everyone does and it’s definitely not something they have to do.

Let them know it’s OK not to want to watch or do something that makes them feel uncomfortable and they should never be pressured or forced into anything. Explain why you think that online porn may be inappropriate for them. Use reference points - news stories or TV shows, and the upcoming introduction of age checks on porn sites - as a way to frame the discussion.

If you feel that there are some things about sex and relationships that your child would feel uncomfortable talking to you about, there are safe places online where they can get information.

    • ChildLine - the website provides young people with information and advice about online porn. The information is for young people aged 12 and above and aims to answer any difficult questions or concerns they may have.
    • Think U Know - offers age appropriate advice for young people, with content broken down from ages 5-7 up to 14+. They also have content for parents and other adults responsible for the wellbeing of children.
    • Brook - the UK's largest young people's sexual health charity. For 50 years, Brook has been providing sexual health services, support and advice to young people under the age of 25.
    • BBC Advice - helps young people with a broad range of issues. The information on the site is based on advice from medical professionals, government bodies, charities and other relevant groups.
    • The Site - content on The Site is aimed at young people aged 16+. They offer "real world" advice on a range of subjects including sex and relationships, drink and drugs, and health.

Suggest practical things that you can do to manage what they see online and help keep them safe. Talk about parental filters that you can set up and reporting tools they can use. 

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Online safety advice

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Talking to your child about staying safe online

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What you need to know

“I’m always watching porn and some of it is quite aggressive. I didn’t think it was affecting me at first but I’ve started to view girls a bit differently recently and it’s making me worried.

“I would like to get married in the future but I’m scared it might never happen if I carry on thinking about girls the way I do.”

Boy, 12-15*

In 2017/18, Childline delivered 158 counselling sessions about online pornography, and 147 counselling sessions about child sexual abuse images.

Description: In 2017/18 Childline delivered 2,218 counselling sessions where the child or young person’s main concern was sexual abuse online. Of these, 158 counselling sessions mentioned online pornography and 147 mentioned child sexual abuse images. Because of changes in recording, figures for 2017/18 are not comparable to those of previous years.

Risks of online porn to children and young people

Studies have shown that when children and young people are exposed to sexually explicit material, they are at greater risk of developing:

    • unrealistic attitudes about sex and consent
    • more negative attitudes towards roles and identities in relationships
    • more casual attitudes towards sex and sexual relationships an increase in ‘risky’ sexual behaviour
    • unrealistic expectations of body image and performance.

 

3 in 4 young women believe porn has led to pressure on women to act a certain way.

In June 2014 the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) surveyed 500 18-year-olds to find out their attitudes to sex and relationships and their opinion of the education and support they had received. 75% of the young women surveyed said 'pornography has led to pressure on girls and young women to act a certain way' (see p.4).

The impact porn can have on a young person depends on a number of factors

These include:

  • the age and gender of the child
  • the type of porn that is being viewed
  • how often they are watching porn
  • what their relationships are like at home and with their friends
  • existing beliefs and values on sex and relationships.

Below is the research we used in creating this list.

Flood, M. (2007) Exposure to pornography among youth in Australia. Journal of Sociology, 43(1): 45–60.

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

Jochen, P. and Valkenburg, P.M. (2006) Adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit material on the Internet. Communication Research, 33(2): 178-204.

Kanuga M. and Rosenfeld W.D. (2004) Adolescent sexuality and the internet: the good, the bad, and the URL. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 17(2): 117–124.

Papadopoulos, L. (2010) Sexualisation of young people: review. [London]: Home Office.

Romito, P. and Beltramini, L. (2011) Watching pornography: gender differences, violence and victimization. An exploratory study in Italy. Violence Against Women, 17: 1313–1326.

Svedin, G., Akerman, I. and Priebe, G. (2011) Frequent users of pornography. A population based epidemiological study of Swedish male adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 34(4): 779-788

Tyden, T. and Rogala, C. (2004) Sexual behaviour among young men in Sweden and the impact of pornography. International Journal of STD and AIDS, 15(9): 590-593.

Wolak, J., Mitchell, K. and Finkelhor, D. (2007) Unwanted and wanted exposure to online pornography in a national sample of youth internet users. Pediatrics, 119(2): 247-257.

53% of boys and 39% of girls who had seen online pornography said they thought it was realistic.

An online survey with 1,001 girls and boys aged 11-16 across the United Kingdom found that 476 young people (48%) had seen online pornography. Of the children who had seen pornography and responded to a series of statements relating to “most of the pornography they had seen”, 49% of all respondents felt that the pornography they had seen was unrealistic. Higher proportions of boys (53% or 127/241) agreed that the pornography they had seen was mostly realistic than girls (39% or 76/195).

What the law says

Types of pornography

There are certain types of porn that are illegal – even for an adult to be in possession of. These are called “extreme pornographic images” and include acts that threaten a person’s life, acts which are likely to, or do, result in serious injury, degrading porn, violent porn (which includes rape and abuse), or anything involving those under the age of 18.

It’s illegal for a person under 18 to send explicit images or films of themselves, or of another young person. By sending an explicit image, a young person is producing and distributing child sexual abuse images and risks being prosecuted, even if the picture is taken and shared with their permission. You can read our information and advice on sexting here.

Accessing pornography

You can legally buy porn magazines from stores and you can access pornography videos from licensed sex shops and cinemas from the age of 18. A new ‘age verification’ law is coming into force that will mean online porn can also only be accessed by adults.

Age checks for online porn sites

A forthcoming change in the law means that all porn sites will be legally required to have age checks, or age verification, in place. These checks will vary across different sites but could include checking credit card details, using a digital ID app which scans your passport or driving licence, or entering your mobile phone number.

This law is being introduced to help reduce young people’s access to pornography, as this can be upsetting for children and may give unrealistic ideas about sex and relationships.

It won’t completely protect children from seeing online porn as the law doesn’t include social media sites, and some young people may find ways around the checks.

However, it will help to reduce the chance of young people accidentally stumbling upon pornography, which we know they’re more likely to do than actively search for it. It’s also a clear message that pornography is not for children.

There are still things you can do to protect and support your children:

    • Change browser settings: Ensure that any adults accessing pornography on shared devices within your home don’t save their passwords or leave themselves logged in. Some porn sites will allow users to set up an account so they don’t need to age verify each time they visit, so browser settings may need to be set to prevent passwords being auto-filled.
    • Use parental filters: Have parental filters in place on your home Wi-Fi and make sure that child friendly settings are in place on your children’s devices. You can call the NSPCC O2 online safety helpline for support with setting these up on 0808 8005002.
    • Talk with your child: Use our tips above to help you to speak to your child about what they do and see on the internet, and to let them know you’re there if they have questions about porn, sex and relationships.
    • Offer reassurance: With these changes in the law, young people may worry that if they see porn, they’ve broken the law. This law puts the responsibility on the porn sites, not on the child.
    • Report sites: Once the law changes, you’ll be able to report porn sites that don’t have age checks in place. This will allow action to be taken against these sites, meaning more children will be protected from accessing or stumbling upon them. You can keep up to date with when these changes will be made and how to report sites on the BBFC website.

*All names and potentially identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of the child or young person. Quotes are created from real Childline contacts but are not necessarily direct quotes from the young person.

Keeping children safe online

Online safety

We’ve teamed up with O2 to help you keep children safe when they're using the internet, social networks, apps, games and more.
Online safety advice

Talking to your child about staying safe online

How to start the conversation with your child about staying safe online, and what to do if you're worried about online safety.
What you need to know

Sexting

How to talk to children about the risks of sexting - and what you can do to protect them
What you can do about sexting

References

  1. Kühn, S. and Gallinat, J. (2014) Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption: the brain on porn. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7): 827-34.

  2. Source: Childline data

    In 2017/18 Childline delivered 2,218 counselling sessions where the child or young person’s main concern was sexual abuse online. Of these, 158 counselling sessions mentioned online pornography and 147 mentioned child sexual abuse images. Because of changes in recording, figures for 2017/18 are not comparable to those of previous years.

     

  3. Voon V., Mole T.B., Banca P., Porter L., Morris L., et al. (2014) Neural correlates of sexual cue reactivity in individuals with and without compulsive sexual behaviours. PLoS ONE, 9(7).